In Defense of Cultural Literacy

The classics have rarely seemed more timely.

As pundits strive to make sense of events in Ukraine, references drawn from classical antiquity come fast and furious.

  • There are allusions to Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, who argument that justice is whatever serves the interests of the strongest clearly reflects Vladimir Putin’s belief.
  • References to Thucydides and his famous words about the Melian dialogue abound: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
  • With US Senators calling for the assassination of the Russian leader, there are mentions of the assassination of Julius Caesar and its ironic consequences.
  • The courage of the Ukrainians draws comparisons to Horatio at the Bridge – Horatius Cocles’s bravery in defending the Pons Sublicius from the invading army of Etruscan King in the late 6th century BC
  • Lines from Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Romeesuddenly seem more relevant than ever: “Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better. Than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his gods?”.

In reading these references, it’s hard not to be cynical. I feel impelled to ask: Are these references sincere – or are they merely examples of a kind of faux erudition and intellectual pretension that tries too hard to lend a bit of dignity and gravitas to remarks that are otherwise banal?

These referents call to mind a classist’s reaction to the lines from Virgil inscribed on the wall of the 9/11 memorial: “Shockingly inappropriate.” The Aeneid‘s famous words — “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” — in fact refer to two warrior-lovers who “have just slaughtered the enemy in an orgy of violence, skewering soldiers whom [they] ambushed in their sleep.”

And yet, even stripped of their proper context, the words from The Aeneidresonate. They dignify our emotions and give solemnity and timelessness to our sentiments.

In recent years, the concept of literacy popularized by ED Hirsch has been subjected to forceful criticism – as inherently conservative, excessively Eurocentric, intrinsically elitist, and overly worshipful of archaic traditions. Worse yet, rather arbitrary lists of cultural literacies do indeed reduce education to an industrial era emphasis on standardization and rote memorization.

But critiques of cultural literacy too often go too far.

Active participation in today’s civic culture requires certain essential background knowledge and certain cultural literacies and fluencies.

I wholeheartedly agree with something that the great historical sociologist Orlando Patterson said in a summer teacher seminar: If you want to critique western culture, you must own the culture and know it from the inside.

In a 2015 essay in The Atlantic, Eric Liu, who served as Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy in the Clinton White House, made a number of powerful points:

  • Cultural illiteracy compounds the problems experienced by those without power and results in worsening civic inequality, by isolating the marginalized from participation in civic discourse and cultural and ideological debates.
  • Inclusion and potential are advanced when there is a common vocabulary, referents, and symbols, and radicalism is rendered more powerful when cloaked in references to common traditions and values, while indiscriminate distain for past concepts, figures, and symbols invariably provokes a backlash.
  • The concept of cultural literacy that ED Hirsch popularized includes too many references to obscure aspects of English history, too much emphasis on minor elements of grammar, too many outdated idioms, and too few references to diversity and especially to world cultures. A fuller list should also include pop culture references, diverse lingos, rituals, and celebrations, musical styles, and media metaphors.

Certainly, in a nation defined by its diversity, our understanding of cultural needs to literacy. And yet Hirsch was right in one respect: We do benefit greatly from a shared cultural vocabulary and references.

It starts me to no end to discover that references – to the French or Russian or Chinese Revolution, for example – elicit blank stars from all too many undergraduates.

Shouldn’t one of a college education’s goals be to expand our students’ identities and to help them become world citizens?

Today, as we experience renewed threats to liberty and democracy, we need to remind our students about certain values ​​that underlie higher education and liberal democratic society. These include ideas about academic freedom, critical inquiry, and the dignity of the individual.

We need to do more to introduce them to the debates, over the past 2,500 years, over justice, virtue, and political and moral philosophy. As Professor Patterson would say, they need to own those debates.

Among the goals of a liberal education is to help students transcend the narrowness and provinciality that sets our time or society apart from all others.

John Donne’s words echo because they speak to a basic truth that events in Ukraine have underscored:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a cloud be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for them.

We may not agree with the ancient defense of history as a way to honor and remember the good and to vilify the bad. But we do need common cultural reference points and shared emblems of honor, courage, and virtue. We also need connections to our collective past.

In that sense, cultural literacy does bequeath the kind of immortality that the ancient Greeks and Romans aspired to.

All of us, like Socrates, owe a cock to Asclepius, not just as an offering of thanks to the god of health and medicine, but to the god of truth. It’s a debt that must be paid and not forgotten.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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