Cultural literacy: Is there necessary core knowledge to be academically successful?

12 Mar

Back in the day there was this book entitled “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.” It was published in 1988 and was written by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Moi liked the concept, some others, not so much. “Cultural Literacy” is defined by Education. Com:

Having sufficient common knowledge, i.e., educational background, experiences, basic skills, and training, to function competently in a given society (the greater the level of comprehension of the given society’s habits, attitudes, history, etc., the higher the level of cultural literacy). http://www.education.com/definition/cultural-literacy/

Marci Kanstroom wrote E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy and American Democracy which was published in Education Next liked the concept. http://educationnext.org/e-d-hirsch-cultural-literacy-and-american-democracy/ Others, like Patrick Scott criticized the concept in articles like Scott’s A Few Words More about E. D. Hirsch and Cultural Literacy. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/378146?uid=3739960&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=55881093943Scott takes issue with Hirsch’s criticism of education icons Dewey and the NEA.

Bernard Schweitzer wrote an interesting 2009 piece for the NEA, Cultural Literacy: Is It Time to Revisit the Debate?

Some will say, “What’s so wrong with being unable to pick up references to a few historical figures, most of them dead White males? Our students are equipped with vibrant local cultural knowledges of their own.” Others will caution me not to expect too much from freshmen, saying that it is my job to ensure that they leave the academy armed with a degree of common knowledge that they may not have when entering it. Yet others may be more concerned, agreeing that while a basic fund of knowledge should be expected of freshmen, my students are perhaps performing so poorly on general knowledge issues because most of them come from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds (e.g., poor inner-city high schools) and diverse ethnic backgrounds (e.g., immigrants). But here’s the rub. If undergraduate students have never heard of Gandhi, Orwell, or Thoreau (or have no reason to remember them), they obviously have such a huge gap in general knowledge that four years of college education are not likely to make up for what has been missing since middle school. Although I may strive diligently to fill those gaps, I realize that we no longer live in a culture that encourages and reinforces a shared knowledge basis with regard to history, geography, literature, and the sciences. But that does not mean that this kind of cultural literacy has ceased to be relevant. Indeed, I believe it is still alive and well, but that it is now cultivated only in a narrow circle of the privileged classes. The reason I don’t see much evidence of this shared knowledge in my own classroom is that I do not, as a rule, encounter the products of the country’s elite preparatory school systems. What I’m saying, then, is that the issue of cultural literacy is socio-economically coded.

Some will say, ‘What’s so wrong with being unable to pick up references to a few historical figures,most of them dead White males?’

The problem with the argument that cultural literacy is irrelevant is that it does actually matter to some. It matters to the upper-middle and upper classes, who hold the reins of wealth and power. Those families who can afford to send their children to top schools can be sure that their offspring are inculcated with precisely the kind of cultural fluency that some are trying to persuade us holds no importance in today’s diversified world. The more we argue the unimportance of cultural literacy among the general populace, the more we relegate the possession of this knowledge to the province of a socio-economic elite, thereby contributing to a hardening of social stratification and a lessening of social mobility. In the upper echelons of society, cultural literacy indicates belonging, and it signals the circulation of knowledge within tightly knit coteries. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/TA09CulturalLiteracy.pdf

Whether one wants to argue that certain cultures are not included or do not have a prominent enough place in the definition of cultural literacy, the real question is what is the baseline knowledge necessary to be upwardly mobile?

Anna M. Phillips has an interesting New York Times article, Nonfiction Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills, Study Finds, which will do nothing to quiet the debate.

Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study to be released Monday.

For three years, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of approximately 1,000 students at 20 New York City schools, following them from kindergarten through second grade. Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” an approach that was spread citywide by former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, beginning in 2003.

The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.

It also tested children on their social studies and science knowledge, and again found that the Core Knowledge pupils came out ahead. Citywide, budget cuts and the drive to increase scores on the state reading and math exams have led many elementary and middle schools to whittle down their social studies and science instruction.

This data shows a promising option for principals to consider,” said Josh Thomases, the deputy chief academic officer for the city’s Education Department.

He said the new curriculum could be useful in helping achieve the new learning targets, known as the Common Core, that New York and most other states have adopted. “As we align curricula and materials with the new Common Core Standards, we look forward to working with this group and others toward a higher standard,” he said.

The pilot program and study were started in the 2008-9 school year by Mr. Klein, who worried that students suffered from what he called a “knowledge deficit.” The study was conducted by the Education Department and paid for with $2.4 million in private donations raised by the Fund for Public Schools, a charity that supports department initiatives.

But city officials said it was not an indication that balanced literacy methods should be abandoned. And several proponents of the longstanding approach, including Carmen Fariña, a former deputy chancellor, said the study focused on too few schools to be used in policy decisions.

I think it’s a very problematic study,” said Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an architect of the city’s balanced literacy program.

As far as I can tell, they gave resources to 10 schools to support content literacy and then they tested all of the schools on content literacy,” she said, adding that there was no way of knowing with what fidelity the 10 comparison schools were using a form of balanced literacy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/nyregion/nonfiction-curriculum-enhanced-reading-skills-in-new-york-city-schools.html?emc=eta1

This debate will not be quieted anytime soon. Moi still likes the concept of “Cultural Literacy.”

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

 

6 Responses to “Cultural literacy: Is there necessary core knowledge to be academically successful?”

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