Definitions and Discussions of Culture

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Decline of Literate Knowledge
From Cultural Literacy , 1987


E.D. Hirsch,Jr., is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.The quote below is from one of his most influential works, Cultural Literacy , which in its entirety makes the case that "cultural literacy"in the U.S. is being eroded because the foundational elements of a sharedculture are no longer being laid in the school system. Hirsch argues infavor of a shared cultural canon; one is "culturally literate"if one is familiar with the canon. To support this view, Hirsch and twoof his colleagues included an appendix to the book entitled "What LiterateAmericans Know: A Preliminary List." The list, which Hirsch meant to"reflect culture" in the U.S. and to serve as a springboard fornational curricular change, has been criticized as reflecting only the dominantculture, to the detriment of the multiple cultural heritages which are apart of the national cultural system.

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My father used to write business letters that alludedto Shakespeare. These allusions were effective for conveying complex messagesto his associates, because, in his day, business people could make suchallusions with every expectation of being understood. For instance, in myfather's commodity business, the timing of sales and purchases was all-important,and he would sometimes write or say to his colleagues, "There is atide," without further elaboration. Those four words carried not onlya lot of complex information, but also the persuasive force of a proverb.In addition to the basic practical meaning, "act now!" what cameacross was a lot of implicit reasons why immediate action was important.

For some of my younger readers who may not recognize the allusion, the passagefrom Julius Caesar is:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
To say "There is a tide" is better than saying "Buy (or sell)now and you'll cover expenses for the whole year, but if you fail to actright away, you may regret it the rest of your life." That would betwenty-seven words instead of four, and while the bare message of the longerstatement would be conveyed, the persuasive force wouldn't. Think of thedemands of such a business communication. To persuade somebody that yourrecommendation is wise and well-founded, you have to give lots of reasonsand cite known examples and authorities. My father accomplished that andmore in four words, which made quoting Shakespeare as effective as any efficiencyconsultant could wish. The moral of this tale is not that reading Shakespearewill help one rise in the business world. My point is a broader one. Thefact that middle-level executives no longer share literate background knowledgeis a chief cause of their inability to communicate effectively.


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