Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cultural Literacy

I've been hoping to write a bit about the philosophy behind K12. I am not very philosophically focused these days, but I'd like to at least get the opening lines drawn. So I've been working on this in bits and pieces. Sorry if it comes out scattered!

First of all, to get this part out of the way -- here's an extensive review of the K12 online curriculum itself, by Cathy Duffy. An issue that comes up regularly in the homeschool world is whether or not any public school charter program is really homeschooling. This topic is not my concern right now. I have never really formed an opinion either way. I have a lot of friends who homeschool under charters. I don't think there are strictly philosophical concerns. Why shouldn't taxpayers receive public funding for their childrens' education? The concerns are logistical. How much control do you have to surrender? Is it too much? Will it lead to too much? Veteran homeschoolers who have fought intense legal and civic battles in the past are likely to be suspicious of government hand-outs in exchange for accountability. These seem to be the main issues as far as I can tell, but I am not well informed on this.

Another issue that comes up in Duffy's review is the religious one. Can you still give your children an education "permeated with Christian piety" (Pope Pius's words) when you're using a largely secular curriculum? This is an interesting issue to me, but I'm not going to discuss it in this post since I'm still trying to think it through (and work it through day to day).

I'm not going to talk about those issues for the present, though I make no guarantees for the future. Here, I'm just talking about what the program is about as far as what its curriculum IS and why it is the way it is. Well, my understanding of it, anyway. Bear with me! Writing helps me think!

To start with:

The K12 program is quite heavily based on ED Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" ideas which were applied in the "What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know" Core Knowledge series that I've had on my bookshelves forever. Now whether Hirsch would go along with the K12 program which was devised by William Bennett is another question. All I know

Hirsch was a scholar studying how people comprehend literature for a book he was writing on the philosophy of composition. By chance, in a study involving southern college students reading a text on Grant and Lee, he found that context -- a background of knowledge -- affected comprehension of a given passage more than almost any other variable. To be more accurate, he found that readers could judge the literary style and correctness of a passage FAR better if they comprehended the text. And a key factor in comprehension was this context or background knowledge.

Following this finding through, he did or researched more studies of a similar nature. He found that for much writing beyond simple primer texts, writing relies upon a certain amount of general prior knowledge. When this background is there, a text can be subtle, nuanced and concise. When the background is lacking, the text has to be verbose, simplified and circuitous.

Even with the technical knowledge required to read words and sentences, children from deprived backgrounds often hit a wall as soon as the reading material reaches a certain level of complexity and subtlety. Hirsch argues that this is because reading well requires more than just ability to decode. It requires some implicit knowledge that is brought to the text by the reader.

He devised the term "cultural literacy" for this implicit knowledge or contextual understanding. The term was disliked by many who thought this was some sort of cultural imperialism. Here in this interview he admits that he wishes he'd chosen a different term to avoid the controversy. However, his ideas had a wide impact perhaps partly because of this very controversy.

Hirsch argues that literacy is THE skill needed for the citizenry of a country founded on democratic principles. And this level of literacy depends on knowledge. Knowledge builds onto knowledge, or "hooks" on to it. If you read an article about Grant and Lee and you already know something about the Civil War, you are likely to learn more. If you read the same article knowing nothing about them, you will struggle.

As I mentioned, Hirsch has been accused of being conservative (in fact, he votes Democrat) and of trying to impose a WASP worldview on a multicultural society. He argues that in fact his agenda is egalitarian. The kids from middle class homes generally pick up a lot of cultural context from dinner table discussions, reading and so on. If the schools don't teach a core curriculum, these kids still become literate. The ones who fall through the gap are the ones that have no opportunity to pick up the knowledge elsewhere.

He also argues that he is not trying to impose a cast-iron traditional agenda on the curriculum.

For one thing, he says that it's a benefit to our country that kids come from very different homes with different cultural backgrounds. He doesn't want the schools to *replace* this but rather to provide a rich secondary common stock of knowledge that is unique to our country.

His second point is that the "core knowledge" is not static and rigid. It's an organic, flexible thing. For instance, "9/11" had no meaning a decade ago. "Watergate" had no cultural significance a half century ago. While the periphery of the core is in flux, there is a stable inner center, because of our literary tradition. If you don't know something about the Bible or Greek myths, you will miss a LOT of allusions in many books. That is NOT going to change so long as we want to read Shakespeare or Keats.

He is not arguing that our United States body of core knowledge is the only one possible or somehow absolutely the best. A child growing up in Japan would have a different body of cultural literacy to learn. The point is that for the sake of civic discourse, this body be explicitly taught in an orderly fashion in the public schools.

He doesn't carry the argument further, but I would imagine that these various bodies of core knowledge would have value in communications between cultures as well.

For one thing -- there are generally universal ideas that transcend the culture and extend to the larger human sphere of concern. Seeing the same ideas and problems posed in very different cultures is intellectually invigorating and valuable.

Secondly -- if this acculturation and transmission of tradition is made systematic and coherent -- it is easier for those from other cultures to pick up on it. A key example would be the Greek body of literature and philosophy. None of it was developed for us "barbarians"; rather the contrary, one would say. However, it has had an unparalleled fruitfulness across time and place. You could well argue that part of this was because of the Greek dialectic ability. Because they were taught and formed very carefully in their cultural background, and because they were expected to ponder, evaluate and interact with this body of formative knowledge, they also were able to communicate with a clarity and depth that has echoed like voices across the centuries and miles.

So though Hirsch doesn't go there in "Cultural Literacy" at least, I think you could make a case for a lively transmission of cultural literacy as a communication device to other cultures as well. Rather than locking each culture into its own values and traditions, it gives them the tools to transcend that. Just a thought though, and it may be off base. I can get carried away ;-).

1 comment:

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!