The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

If you’ve forgotten what a Philistine is beyond the concert hall, can’t distinguish Chaplin from Chopin, if a friend mentions the Apocrypha and you think about the Apocalypse, there may be a book you need on your shelf (or in your web bookmarks).

New Dictionary of Cultural LiteracyThe New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (available on-line and in print) is a rather bold attempt to capture the core canon of cultural knowledge required of an advanced American citizen. With section entries from The Bible to mythology to the fine arts, the reference could be the pocket guide for the culturally informed (although with 6900 entries, you’d have to have a wonking big pocket).

Some might say that a reference to cultural literacy would have to be changed every ten minutes to be truly useful, since culture is always evolving. Editor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., takes another view, that:

Eighty percent of literate culture has been in use for more than a hundred years!

Like the surface water on a deep river, he suggests, some cultural references change quickly, but the bulk of them (the deeper currents) are slower to change, and some haven’t changed in centuries. According to Hirsch, a detailed, common understanding of this core of knowledge isn’t just good for Trivial Pursuit, it’s a key to learning itself:

The novelty that my book introduced into this discussion is its argument that true literacy depends on a knowledge of the specific information that is taken for granted in our public discourse. My emphasis on background information makes my book an attack on all formal and technical approaches to teaching language arts. Reading and writing are not simply acts of decoding and encoding but rather acts of communication. The literal words we speak and read and write are just the tip of the iceberg in communication. An active understanding of the written word requires far more than the ability to call out words from a page or the possession of basic vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and inferencing techniques. We have learned that successful reading also requires a knowledge of shared, taken-for-granted information that is not set down on the page.

Whatever your educational theory, you have to admire the hubris of the effort, and revel in the details it contains. And any curious web surfer could get lost entirely in the on-line equivalent of the book. Just take a look at the section on idioms, and you’ll see what I mean.

Managers of arts and cultural organizations are often the translators of their communities — connecting, transcribing, framing, cajoling, debriefing — between artist, audience, and art. Advanced cultural literacy would seem a requirement of that job, and not just in the artistic discipline you manage.

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(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund…not much, admittedly, but a bit)