Cultural illiteracy rampant in American youth

By Paulina Yousif

“You don’t need a passport to go to Hawaii. It’s in America.”

“Are you serious? I thought Hawaii was a country!”

No, that’s not a comedy sketch on SNL, but an actual conversation overheard in a Lane classroom.

Don’t be surprised. There are all sorts of “common-knowledge” facts that many people have just never learned. Certain pieces of information like this, while not essential to one’s ability to survive in the world, can severely impair one’s ability to appear intelligent.

Knowing some basic things related to all areas of study enables even the uneducated to appear informed about the society they live in. This is known as being culturally literate.

Someone who doesn’t know the name of the president who was shot and killed in Dallas, TX in 1963 might be considered culturally illiterate because they are unfamiliar with the widely known details of the Kennedy assassination. Similarly, someone unable to identify the famous golfer who has recently been in trouble for his extra-marital affairs might be considered culturally illiterate because they are uninformed about what is dominating the recent headlines of popular culture.

Whether it’s historical information or pieces of pop culture, certain basic pieces of knowledge must be possessed by individuals if they are to be considered culturally literate.

The concept of cultural literacy was first defined by college professor E.D. Hirsch, in his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. He wrote that to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.

Being culturally literate does not necessarily mean being well-educated in the formal sense. Hirsch says that being culturally literate is the “ticket out” for students that come from bad or underprivileged schools because it is essentially the skill of knowing how to communicate on a national level.

Hirsch was inspired to write his book after he realized his college students did not know much about the world around them.

“[He] would be alluding things into his class lectures thinking he was being witty, but he realized his college students knew very little about the world and didn’t understand most of what he was saying,” said English teacher, Mr. Dongas, who incorporates a game into his classes based on topics listed in Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, published in 1988.

Most Lane students have a basic understanding of what it means to be culturally literate.

“I think cultural literacy is understanding and possessing the general knowledge of our culture and having an intelligent conversation about it,” said Renato Yutuc, Div. 037.

“Cultural literacy is being knowledgeable about the world around you: its past and its present,” said Christina El Gamal, Div. 162.

These same students, however, agree that cultural literacy continues to be undervalued by many.

“No one really cares about [cultural literacy] anymore. They just think it’s another thing having to do with school,” said Henry Prado, Div. 041.

“I believe that our society is minimally culturally literate. We know just enough to get by without looking ignorant, but not enough to truly understand some aspects of our world’s culture,” said El Gamal. “We could definitely learn so much more if we simply placed a higher value on cultural literacy.”

One of the reasons so many people in today’s society have a low level of cultural illiteracy is because they focus too much on pop culture, like celebrity news, instead of news about national or international events.

“I think society is more focused on pop culture because that is what gets shoved in our [faces]. If you look at a magazine, [the] television, or go on the internet, you see celebrity news and all of that, and it is big and noticeable,” said Candace Palacios, Div. 181.

On a segment of The Jay Leno Show called “Jaywalking,” Leno walks around the streets of Los Angeles and asks random people questions in order to show how culturally illiterate our society can be. On one episode, Leno asked a lady on the street, “What state is Barack Obama from?” Her response: “What state is Barack Obama from…ummm The United States!”

He asked another person, “What country did America gain independence from?” Even after Leno hinted about England and King George, she said “Greece.”

“I think [Jaywalking] is hilarious. And I don’t think it is an exaggeration either because I do meet people like that everyday,” said Dongas.

For purposes of this story, a version of “Jaywalking” was conducted at Lane to see if students’ cultural literacy was “pop culture heavy.” Basic questions of cultural literacy were combined on the test with questions on pop culture. The quiz questions are included in the graphic appearing with this story.

The average score on questions of basic cultural literacy was three out of 11. The average score on the pop culture questions was nine out of 11.

“I think I did better on the pop culture questions than the culturally literate questions because I am constantly bombarded with pop culture, everywhere I go,” said Joel Gonzalez, Div. 037. “There are magazines at work, whenever I go online at home, even on the bus. It is literally everywhere!”

“I believe I did better on the pop culture questions than the culturally literate questions because I can honestly say, it may be more interesting,” said Yutuc. “We are obsessed with the media, and the media is more focused on [celebrities] because most are attractive and have lives that we [wish] we had. In turn, we are tuned towards them by curiosity.”

Despite the results of this experiment, some students believe that they could become more culturally literate by changing some personal habits.

“I could become more culturally literate by doing simple things,” said El Gamal, “such as reading the newspaper more often, watching the news, using the internet less, and giving less time and attention to mass media.”