CULTURAL LITERACY refers to the concept that citizens in a democracy should possess a common body of knowledge that allows them to communicate effectively, govern themselves, and share in their society's rewards. E. D. Hirsch Jr., a literary scholar, popularized the term in the best-selling book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know in 1987. He argued that to participate fully in society, a person needs more than basic literacy, that is, the ability to read and write. Hirsch opposed the long-accepted view of educator John Dewey, who argued for a child-centered pedagogy that stressed experiential learning. Rather, Hirsch maintained that early education should focus on content and that all students, not just a bright few, could achieve cultural literacy. Hirsch offered in his book 5,000 terms that he thought culturally literate Americans should recognize. The list included dates ("1776"), historical persons ("Brown, John"), titles of historic documents ("Letter from a Birmingham Jail"), figures of speech ("nose to the grindstone"), and terms from science ("DNA"). Hirsch maintained that American children had to inherit this cultural knowledge if they were to share in the intellectual and economic rewards of a complex civilization. The argument drew initial support from officials in President Ronald Reagan's administration, and educational policy-makers in the 1980s and 1990s increasingly supported uniform educational standards. Critics feared that Hirsch's cultural literacy list was simplistic, that it presumed a uniform Eurocentric culture, and that it failed to reflect the nation's diversity of race and ethnicity. Hirsch answered his critics and greatly expanded his list in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, published in 1988 and revised in 1993 and written with Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil. The book sold more than 1million copies.
Hirsch, E. D. Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.