August 10, 1987 12:00 PM

Most Americans know who Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln were, but who said, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley”? What is Occam’s razor? The significance of Sisyphus?

If most people don’t know these things, it is because they are “culturally illiterate, “proclaims E.D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of the controversial best-seller, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95). His claim that this sort of ignorance pervades our society is reinforced by a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress study that found that 66 percent of U.S. high school students do not know when the Civil War took place, and that 50 percent cannot identify Stalin or Churchill. To determine each individual’s level of cultural literacy, Hirsch and two colleagues have compiled a 5,000-item index (see sample, opposite). Correspondent Jerome Cramer spoke with Hirsch in Charlottesville, Va.

What is the difference between literacy and cultural literacy?

Literacy requires cultural literacy, which is the background knowledge, the context, that allows us to communicate with each other. Literacy is cultural literacy. It’s the shared network of information that allows people to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications. It includes information that we have traditionally expected our children to receive in school, but which they no longer do.

Why don’t students get this information in school?

In the 1960s people wanted poor and minority kids to do well in school, and they tried to make the curriculum “relevant.” So rather than expose every student to a core of information, they allowed students to take anything that interested them. The school curriculum became based on what interested kids, not on what educators in general thought that all kids should know. Knowledge then got dragged down to the least common denominator.

How can schools improve their performance?

Schools should give every student the information that literate families pass on to their kids. Among other things, schools should stress more memorization, and the earlier the better. Kindergarteners love to memorize poems and they do it easily. Kids used to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance or the Gettysburg Address before they understood what all the words meant. By the age of 13 kids don’t have to completely understand Hamlet, but they should know the basic plot, and the same is true about the Bible, the Civil War, gravity, Vietnam, Jesse Jackson, Pope John Paul, the Constitution and phrases like “Easy come, easy go.”

Why do you feel all this is especially important in the computer age?

The more computers we have the more we need shared fairy tales, myths, historical images and so on. The more specialized and technical our civilization becomes, the harder it is for nonspecialists to participate in the decisions that deeply affect their lives. If we don’t achieve a literate society, sharing a common cultural language, the technicians with their arcane vocabularies will not be able to communicate with us, nor we indeed with them.

How did you proceed to develop your list?

I talked to specialists in the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. We showed the list to 164 elementary and secondary school teachers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and had them offer suggestions. We wanted to give a test to newspaper reporters, but we realized they would publish stories about it, so we chose a group of 1,000 lawyers instead. More than 500 took the test, and we found their average score was 92 correct answers out of a possible 100.

Isn’t the test culturally biased against the poor and minorities?

To thrive, a child needs to learn the traditions of a society and a culture. Too often poor kids never get literacy at home. They have to rely on learning it in school. And as the schools fail, the failure inevitably hurts the poor and minorities most. The aim should be to allow people to get into a culture, not to exclude them.

How will having culturally literate students help the U.S prosper?

Cultural literacy is the key to economic and democratic strength in this country. This country has been more economically and socially successful than any nation in history up through the 1930s by welding together various peoples through its school systems. We’ve got to start doing this again. The Japanese workers are so effective, in part, because managers only have to explain something once to a Japanese worker. He shares a background of information with every other worker and communication is easy and effective. I am advocating a cultural vocabulary that will allow communication among all Americans.

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