[I]n 2016 I have a goal to read 50 books. This is my 3rd book this year I have completed. The book was given to me by my lovely school teacher wife, Karen.

Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., argues that children in the United States desperately need to understand a basic knowledge of more than reading, writing, and arithmetic, but rather an American cultural literacy of words and phrases that makeup American language and stories. This book contains 5000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts from Johnny Appleseed to Star Wars, and A.I. to zero-sum. (Click Here to Buy)

Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., What Every American needs to Know

Preface to the Vintage Edition
– …Schools by themselves… can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years. p. xiii
– The anthropological view stresses the universal fact that a human group must have effective communication to function effectively, that effective communications require shared culture, and that shared culture requires transmission of specific information and that shared culture requires transmission of specific information to children. p. xvii

Chapter 1 – Literacy and Cultural Literacy

The Decline of Literate Knowledge
– The function of national literacy is to foster effective nationwide communications. p. 2
– The most broadly based evidence about our teaching of literacy comes from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). p. 4
The Nature and Use of Cultural Literacy
– The people who run society at the macro-level must be literate in tis culture. p. 10
– To be truly literate, citizens must be able to grasp the meaning of any piece of writing addressed to the general reader. p. 12
The Decline of Teaching Cultural Literacy
– Cultural literacy lies above the everyday levels of knowledge that everyone posses and below the expert level known only to specialists. p. 19
– Our elementary schools are not only dominated by the content-neutral ideas of Rousseau and Dewey, they are also governed by approximately sixteen thousand independent school districts. p. 19
– Researchers who have studied the factors influencing educational outcomes have found that the school curriculum is the most important controllable influence on what our children know and don’t know about our literate culture. p. 20
– Literate culture is the most democratic culture in our land: it excludes nobody; it cuts across generations and social groups and classes; it is not usually one’s first culture, but it should be everyone’s second, existing as it does beyond the narrow spheres of family, neighborhood, and region. p. 21
– Educational policy always involves choices between degrees of worthiness. p. 25
The Critical Importance of Early Schooling
– Although our schools do comparatively well in teaching elementary decoding skills, they do less well than schools of some other countries in teaching the background knowledge that pupils must possess to succeed at mature reading tasks. p. 27
– Around grade four, those who lack the initial knowledge required for significant reading begin to be left behind permanently. p. 28
– Left to itself, a child will not grow into a thriving creature; Tarzan is pure fantasy. To thrive, a child needs to learn the traditions of the particular human society and culture it is born into. p. 31

Chapter 2 – The Discovery of the Schema

Research on Background Knowledge in Reading
The Psychological Structure of Background Knowledge
– Research has shown that middle-level categories are the ones children learn first in acquiring language; they learn tree before oak, and they learn dog before animal. Eleanor Rosch has called these middle categories basic-level terms. p. 49
Skill as Knowledge and Knowledge as Skill
– What distinguishes good readers from poor ones is simply the possession of a lot of diverse, task-specific information. p. 61
– Adriann de Groot, a Dutch psychologist, in one experiment displayed for five to ten seconds a chess position from an actual game in which twenty-five pieces were left on the board. Grand masters were asked to reproduce the positions from memory, to which they performed this feat with 100% accuracy. Then de Groot instead of placing the twenty-five pieces in positions from an actual game, he placed them on the board randomly. All his subjects could only place five or six pieces correctly. p. 61
– When the configuration of a task is significantly changed, past skills are not transferred to the new problem. p. 61
– It has been estimated that a chess master can recognize about 50,000 positional patterns. Interestingly, that is the approximate number of words and idioms in the vocabulary of a literate person. p. 63

Chapter 3 – National Language and National Culture

The Formation of Modern National Languages
– Because of modern economic needs, the goals of language standardization and universal literacy become ever more urgent. p. 73
– Universal literacy … must be able to communicate by means of written, impersonal, context-free, to whom-it-may-concern-type messages. p. 74
– A literate Briton has to know more about the game of cricket and the Corn Laws than an American. As American has to know more about baseball and the Bill of Rights than a Briton. p. 75
The Formation of Modern National Cultures

Chapter 4 – American Diversity and Public Discourse

  • Because our country started out with a powerful commitment to religious toleration, we developed habits of cultural tolerance to go with it. p. 95
  • Our diversity has been represented by the motto on all our coins – E. PLURIBUS UNUM, “out of many one.” p. 96
  • People have gradually located themselves according to economic status rather than cultural background. p. 98
  • We believe in altruism and self-help, in equality, freedom, truth telling, and respect for the national law. p. 99
    The Vocabulary of A Pluralistic Nation
  • The national culture, as contrasted with the national civil religion, depends on a highly diverse vocabulary of communication rather than a coherent system of fundamental values and principles. p. 102
  • What counts in the sphere of public discourse is simply being able to use the language of culture in order to communicate any point of view effectively. p. 103
  • We require not only that ordinary citizens be scientifically literate but that technicians and scientists master the nonscientific literate culture. p. 108

Chapter 5 – Cultural Literacy and the Schools

The Rise of the Fragmented Curriculum
– The decline of American literacy and the fragmentation of the American school curriculum have been chiefly caused by the ever growing dominance of romantic formalism in educational theory during the past half century. p.110
– The more you know, the more you can learn. p. 111
– Current schoolbooks in language arts pay little systematic attention to conveying a body of culturally significant information from grade to grade. p. 112
– … teachers are not expected to have mastered particular factual and traditional information or any special academic discipline; they are trained only to impart skills. p. 113
– It is true that, under our present curricular arrangements, academic achievement is heavily determined by family background. p. 115
– The implication is that many more students could become highly literate if they were presented with the right sort of curriculum, particularly in their early years. p. 116
– The Cardinal Principles therefore recommended introducing a wide array o courses that would accord with children’s “individual differences in capacities and aptitudes.” p. 120
– …consistent doubling of the school population every ten years. By 1918, greater percentages of Americans were graduating from high school than ever before. p. 121
– The system of American education since 1918 has continued to be partly based on Thorndike’s valid claim that training is not transferred from one area of learning to another. From the principle of the non-transfer of training, the 1918 report argued that if we want to prepare people for life in a modern democracy we ought to train them for the specific work they are going to do. p. 121
– … the shopping mall school with its extreme horizontal fragmentation. p. 123
– Immediately after World War II, for instance, a resolution passed by educators meeting in Washington, D.C., asserted that only 40 percent of our children were being properly educated. p. 123
Principles of Reform
– Schools across our nation should share common goals, but their means for achieving those goals should be varied and adaptive. p. 127
– …we must always present material to children in an interesting way. p. 130
– A special motivation for this focus in the early grades should be our understanding that if students still lack important elements of the extensive curriculum by tenth grade, they will rarely be able to make up the loss. p. 130
– Any educational movement that avoids coming to terms with the specific contents of literate education or evades the responsibility of conveying them to all citizens is committing a fundamental error. p. 133

Chapter 6 – The Practical Outlook

Defining the Contents of Cultural Literacy
– One immediate implication is that we have an obligation to identify and publish the contents of cultural literacy. p. 134
Putting Cultural Literacy to Work
– The single most effective step would be to shift the reading materials used in kindergarten through eighth grade to a much stronger base in factual information and traditional lore. p. 140
– What is needed are reading texts that deliberately convey what children need to know and include a substantially higher proportion of factual narratives. p. 140
– …breaking the cycle of illiteracy for deprived children; raising the living standard of families who have been illiterate; making our country more competitive in international markets; achieving greater social justice; enabling all citizens to participate in the political process; bringing us closer to the Ciceronian ideal of universal public discourse–in short achieving fundamental goals of the Founders at the birth of the republic.

What is your favorite part of the book? What did you learn from E.D.’s book?

Featured image from Amazon & E.D. Hirsch, Jr.