Intellectually unified

Want to feel bad about that liberal arts education you or your parents robbed a bank to pay for? Pick up a book from E. D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge Series.” I’ve developed today’s pop quiz from the pages of What Your 4th Grader Needs to Know (no fair Googling):

1. Abbot Suger developed what style of architecture?
2. What kingdom did Mansa Musa rule, and about when was his reign?
3. What was the context and thrust of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech?

It gets worse in the younger grade books in the series. I know about a quarter of what Hirsch requires every Kindergartener to know.

It’s easy to be cross with Hirsch, just as I was cross with some of my more demanding teachers. But you and I run into phenomena every day that may remind us that, as a society, we share fewer stories, myths, and other core information. Our cultural literacy rate is low, to use Hirsch’s term.

Today’s phenomena may include the chirpy pop radio station I hear at the gym in the morning, where the two deejays have nothing better to talk about than what they saw on “American Idol” this week. Yesterday I was reminded of this while reading Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs’ well-regarded introduction to Hafiz of Shiraz, their translation of some of his poetry:

Hafiz depended on a audience that took this traditional symbolism for granted, yet that was sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate subtleties and ingenuities of all kinds – irony, plays upon words, oblique references to the Koran and Muslim theology. . . Such an audience would, quite naturally and unselfconsciously, be capable of understanding a poem on several simultaneous levels of significance. This implies a habit of mind that is only to be found in a culture more intellectually unified than our own. But here again, the European Middle Ages, with their theory of the four-fold allegorical interpretation of Scripture (a theory that Dante, for instance, quite naturally applied to the interpretation of his own poetry), provide a fruitful analogy. . .

(By the way, Hafiz is one of thousands of gaps in my liberal arts education. I’ve stopped sticking my fingers in that dike… though it wouldn’t surprise me if Hafiz appears in Hirsch’s book for, like, second grade. I’ve decided to address my cultural illiteracy a little at a time, and to enjoy myself in the process. Besides, I have no social event tonight at which the women will be speaking of Michelangelo.)

(Okay, quick: the references to fingers in the dike and women speaking of Michelangelo. . .)

Less “intellectually unified” is generous. It suggests we all have a lot of at least potentially useful stories and other core information in our skulls, but that it all appears terribly esoteric to our neighbors. (And I do feel that way about my neighbor, a computer whiz and a movie buff.)

I read Jane Eyre to my eleven year old this spring. The number of biblical allusions in it is staggering. How can one get much out of English or American literature before, say, World War I without a rudimentary education in the Bible?

I remember liberal arts professors at my fully accredited college teaching me that Jesus was transfigured right after he finished his Sermon on the Mount; that John leaned on Jesus’ breast to ascertain his betrayer’s name only after Jesus’ resurrection; that God asked Adam, “Who are you?” after Adam had eaten the forbidden fruit. (This last professor went off on a jag about identity for about twenty minutes. I resisted the urge to play Chevy Chase to his Emily Litella: “That’s ‘Where are you’; not ‘Who are you.’ ‘Where are you.'”) None of these are major points, of course, but they send me rummaging for the soapbox that I usually later regret mounting.

[Okay, okay. 1. Gothic. 2. 14th Century Mali. 3. She spoke at a women’s convention in 1851 about the strength and worth of women. Without directly addressing the point, she also demonstrated the need for blacks in the women’s rights movement.]



Posted June 2004