How to Read Cultural Literacy

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Richard Ohmann

WE HAVE HAD literacy “crises” at fairly regular intervals since the 1890s, when the word “literacy” itself first gained currency—the first time when it was possible, and I’d say necessary, to conceptualize an individual’s attainment of specific elementary skills, and the average level of such skills among an entire population.

That was also (no coincidence) the time when U.S. high schools and colleges began to expand rapidly, and assume a major role in cultural reproduction. The 1890s were the moment when monopoly capitalism first took shape, and came to depend on complex knowledge of various sorts. Finally—and in concert with these developments—that was when the new system of production called into being a new professional-managerial class (PMC), closely involved with schools, universities and the marshalling of knowledge for social purposes, both of its own and of the ruling class.

It is easy to see, intuitively, why the idea of literacy became useful at that time. The PMC needed it to anchor its cultural authority, and to supervise and measure the training of subordinate classes. And it is easy to see why the 1890s produced a literacy crisis, as crowds of young people who had previously not had access to elite education poured into high schools and colleges.

That’s what literacy crises are usually about—not actual declines in literacy, for which there is and has been no real evidence. As Gramsci wrote:

“Each time that … the question of language comes to the fore, that signifies that a series of other problems is about to emerge: the formulation and enlarging of the ruling class, the necessity to establish more “intimate” and sure relations between the ruling groups and the national popular masses, and the reorganization of cultural hegemony.”

Hirsch and His World

The great expansion of universities in the 1960s, along with the cultural and political uprisings of that time, led straight to the literacy crisis of the mid-1970s-as well as to related events that were more consequential, like educational cutbacks and the back-to-basics movement The effects of that crisis are with us still, not least in the work and sudden influence of E.D. Hirsch.

Before discussing Cultural Literacy (the work on which Hirsch’s popular fame is based—ed.), let me briefly discuss its genesis in Hirsch’s career. He had been a literary theorist up to the mid-1970s, heard only among specialists in that fairly arcane enterprise.

Then, made aware of the “crisis” and its impact in colleges, he turned to the study of writing instruction, producing in 1977 an influential book The Philosophy of Composition. Its argument went like this: Writing is a form of speech, not just a way of recording speech. Most significantly, it differs from oral speech in the meagerness of its context; it must get across without the help of gesture, expression, responses from the other party, a situation visible to both, and so on.

Thus writing must be taught rather than effortlessly learned. What should be taught, argues Hirsch, in addition to the verbal devices that replace non-verbal context, are the conventions of the standard language—since the evolution of standard languages is both inevitable and progressive. It is progressive partly in that it brings about a classless, stable lingua franca (standard English, for example), making possible free communication with speakers of all groups and regions, as well; as communication from the dead and to the unborn.

It is also progressive in that the history of language has been one of steadily increasing efficiency in communication. From this historical argument can be derived a first principle—”One prose style is better than another when it communicates the same meanings as the other but requires less effort from the reader”—the principle of “relative readability” (The Philosophy of Composition, 9) Hirsch spent the remainder of the book identifying the features of writing that make it more readable, reducing them to practical maxims, and drawing out the pedagogical implications, including the need for valid and reliable ways to assess writing.

Hirsch was well aware that his argument derived “ought” from “is,” a value from an historical description: “At some point, it is true, value choices have to be made. Not everything is decidable by neutral linguistic facts and dominant historical tendencies.” Right; and right again when he went on, “if the historical tendencies are not only inevitable but also desirable, then only harm can come from resisting them.” (Ibid., 4)

By including, however, the words “not only inevitable but also desirable,” Hirsch seemed to acknowledge that the historical argument by itself leads to no value and no imperative. Clearly, if there were an inevitable historical tendency towards barbarism, only good could come from resisting it as long as possible!

Without an injection of the content of “desirable” from some other realm, the march of history brings us no ethical principles and no superior dialect—only one constituted or superior by social power and authority. Thus Hirsch was wrong in claiming, “the empirical evidence which! have adduced and interpreted has raised my argument above the level of ideology” (Ibid.)—meaning by”ideology” values drawn from outside the arena of communication itself. Indeed, an invalid argument is often a mine of ideology.

Naturally Hirsch’s pedagogy also failed to escape ideology. Ignoring the social doesn’t make it go away. To mention only the most familiar difficulty with the teaching of composition: Writing done in school, unless we somehow resist the institutional structure within which we work, is writing done for a “boss,” whoever the implied reader may be. A student may thus be forgiven if her/his main intention is to write whatever the teacher wants and so get a good mark.

I believe that this situation, and all the post-college situations that it apes and trains for, cause much of the pain and dissatisfaction attached to writing—and indeed to literacy itself. Work that is mere execution, done to someone else’s conception, whose product is not controlled by the worker, is alienated work.

From this perspective, sloppy writing in the classroom is no more surprising than resentful work and absenteeism on the assembly line. Hirsch bracketed all such considerations in his discussion of readability, and like Frederick Winslow Taylor (the father of such techniques of industrial management as time-motion studies, hence “Taylorism”—ed.) exalted a supposedly neutral efficiency.

Who Standardizes the Standards?

A better use of history than Hirsch’s would be to inquire into the historical links between standardization and the interests of a class whose dominance led to, and is built upon, national markets, national advertising, a rapid flow of commercial information, mountains of written records and a mobile work force whose labor is pretty much interchangeable.

I don’t know what the results of such an inquiry might be, but I do know that the history of widening literacy is far from simply a history of expanding freedom. It is also, in the last two centuries, a history of disciplining a reluctant work force, and then turning that work force into a mass of efficient consumers.

The history of standardization and literacy, from what! know of it, has always been as history of conflict between groups, and often of outright conquest I don’t see how it can lead to Hirsch’s goal, “an authentic ideology of literacy” that “inheres in the subject itself.”

Literacy, like communicative efficiency and standard English, means something quite different for the president of Mobil Oil and for the young Black woman in his secretarial pool. This is not to suggest that the latter would be better off illiterate, or unable to use stand-and English, or writing non-linear prose. Of course, the extension of effective means of literary communication that will both enable one to survive on the job market and serve to facilitate access to knowledge and self-empowerment is an issue of top urgency for the left But it is an illusion to suggest an escape from ideology and from conflict of values in such matters.

Ideology saturates every corner of Hirsch’s historical and social argument “Society places the highest priority on written speech….” (Ibid., 5); “Composition is taught at the behest of society—the court of last resort.” When someone uses the word “society” this way, that’s what! call the principle of relative gullibility.

The Ideology of Cultural Literacy

After publishing The Philosophy of Composition, Hirsch set out to develop tests for relative readability and for the learning of it He discovered to his surprise that literacy after all is not content-neutral—that communication actually works better when both or all parties share some knowledge of what they are talking about From this discovery he concluded that we must teach what he now calls “cultural literacy” Then, when we test students on what they know, literacy scores will doubtless rise in a most gratifying way—if one finds tautologies gratifying.

I mention this background because Cultural Literacy continues the project of the earlier book in important ways. First, it continues to privilege standard written English, and adds on the standard, casual knowledge of the professional managerial class. Second, it once again derives an “ought” from an “is”: Against a view of education, attributed to John Dewey, as training in skills, Hirsch counterposes a “corrective theory” that is “based on the anthropological observation that all human communities are founded upon specific shared information.” Therefore, “the basic goal of education in a human community is … the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults of the group.”

In addition to the faulty logic, Hirsch quietly allows his focus to slip from small, pre-industrial peoples to large, modern societies. In so doing he writes off class at the outset What can “the group” mean, in the above-quoted sentence, except those with the power and privilege in a modern society to make others learn their information or pay the price?

As that suggests, Hirsch does not disavow ideology this time, at least at the beginning and the end of Cultural Literacy. Its ideology is reformist and liberal—not conservative like that of Allan Bloom (of The Closing of the American Mind fame—ed.), of a sort all too familiar in the politics of U.S. education, over many decades. And it is as naive as ever.

Literacy, Culture and Class

Let me say, in passing, that! don’t think Hirsch’s argument all wrong. His case for the inseparability of literacy from cultural knowledge is strong, if obvious. The point is important, and could easily sponsor a more fruitful debate than the one that has ensued.

But Hirsch encouraged the kind of reception his ideas in fact have had, by espousing the very traditional American hope that a technical reconception of learning and of educational policy might, without any significant change in our society, be a remedy for its inequality and injustice. His program, he insists on the first page of the preface, would not only serve all classes, but “constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend tore-main poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred… chiefly because [teachers] are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.” Since Hirsch seems to attribute class to “class distinction,” his implied hope that it would go away if we could eliminate ignorance and snobbery is no surprise.

The fact that the distribution of wealth remained roughly constant through a century in which education changed beyond recognition; the fact that it has gotten steadily more unequal during the last twenty years, regardless of 1960s experiments in open education or 1980s back-to-basics movements; the fact that the top ten percent now own close to ninety percent of productive wealth (and the top one percent nearly halt)—these facts might suggest that there are unjust forces at work in our social processes, not just bad theories about the teaching of eight-year-olds. But our leaders, intellectual and political, prefer not to think of matters in this way, and welcome programs that offer to channel social conflict into technical resolutions.

Pathways to Influence

This gatekeeping process is evident from Hirsch’s account of his project’s genesis and development an article in the Journal of Basic Writing, a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, encouragement from a conference of the Modern Language Association, urgings from Joseph Epstein to develop the MLA paper into what became very influential articles in The American Scholar, a suggestion from Diane Ravitch that Hirsch write a book and call it Cultural Literacy.

Then, as he puts it, “the tenor of my life began to change.I received a letter from Robert Payton, President of Exxon Educational Foundation,” whose “kindly and idealistic challenge pulled me away from scholarly concerns and into educational activism.” One could continue through his acknowledgements, which tell a story of patronage and affiliation that says much about the ideological and hegemonic process in a society like ours, and about the attainment of influence. And Hirsch is exerting influence, believe it, through consultancies, grants, advice to politicians, testing programs, a new California curriculum and so on.

Let me emphasize that his is a liberal program, in spite of endorsement from high conservative circles. If Hirsch’s program turned into a national curriculum it would reassert the false promises of equality-through education that have accompanied every broadening of the school and college population; it would encourage a few seven- and eight-year-olds to stay with the system while discouraging most in the same ways they are discouraged now; and it would, for a while at least, shore up the ideology of equal opportunity and mask the structural inequities of the social order.

Ideas For An Alternative

If I’m right about this, we should keep it clearly in mind as we think about ways to teach in the context that cultural literacy may help to define, over the next few years. Of course, the chance to improve life opportunities for even a small number of the poor must not be dismissed, but we should remain clear about the overriding dynamic. For instance, while Hirsch’s famous list will discriminate against minority and working-class kids—and we should say so—we should avoid joining attempts to make the list more “fair.”

Hirsch himself would welcome such attempts, as would most of the leaders in state education who endorse this idea. But getting a few items like “rap” or “heavy metal” onto the list will in no way challenge the ideology of cultural literacy or mitigate its effects, which will be pretty much the same as the effects of current pedagogues and curricula.

What strategies might we adopt, then? The “we” I have in mind here are mainly college teachers, because I am one, and lack the experience to advise those who teach in the primary grades where cultural literacy programs will mainly happen, if anywhere.

First, we should teach politically about culture and literacy, wherever we have the chance. That means refusing always to treat culture as an autonomous realm, or to discuss education with children apart from political economy. We should insist—as I imagine most of us do—on placing in the foreground power, class, gender and race, whenever cultural values come forward as a matter for inquiry and discussion. Always historicize, always politicize.

Second, those of us who teach subjects classed as Cultural should continue with the effort underway since the sixties to challenge and disassemble and open up traditional canons—of music, art, literature and (if the term applies) of historical and political concepts. The idea is not to substitute new canons for old ones, but to confront heemonic voices and forms with alternative and oppositional ones. We have to encourage students to think of culture as process and struggle, not fixed lists of any sort, and certainly not fixed lists of great works and great ideas.

Third, we should build upon and critically develop the literacies that students already have, in all the meaning systems of mass culture—TV, music, costume, the commodities and self-presentation and group identity, and so on. This will become especially urgent if the cultural literacy movement gains strength, because then our students will have been taught even more than now to disvalue the cultures that are theirs. I do not mean, of course, that we should privilege mass culture as it is against high culture, but that we should recognize the cultural competence students possess, and encourage critical reflection upon it.

Fourth, those who teach reading and writing will continue to face the prickly challenge of helping students gain access to languages of privilege and power, while at the same time validating their own language, and helping them build languages of opposition at the junction of the two. That implies of course that we try always to free writing instruction from the alienating confines of formal exercise, textbook and the classroom itself. Writing should be political.

Fifth, if cultural literacy does become established, we should teach directly about its lexicon—about how Diehard, Dien Bien Phu, diffraction, diffusion, dime novels, dinosaur, Diogenes, Dionysus and diplomacy might have come to be on it, for instance, and not diddle, dig, dingbat or dipshit We should teach about the mechanisms and assumptions of cultural authority.

The issues here, as always, are political, and along with whatever we can do in classrooms we have to fight Hirsch’s static, hierarchical plan for cultural literacy in every venue where we have a voice. It is intellectually and politically bankrupt, and the best service left Intellectuals can perform is to discredit it before its public.

January-February 1992, ATC 36