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If TV Is the Cultural Fountainhead, Better Schools Won’t Boost Literacy

<i> David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside</i>

New critics of education are writing sequels to last year’s best sellers. And bureaucratic redecorators have rushed in, to fashion education with the latest trendsD. Hirsch, whose “Cultural Literacy” proposed a list of facts every American should know, has recently co-authored a companion volume, “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,” a teacher’s guide to facts. Some California educators insist that children memorize this list, until all would know the capital of Florida, the exact same quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, who Jack Benny was and why Americans liked Ike.

This proposal hearkens back to Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five-Minute University” on TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” where all we need to know are the facts that filter through, 20 years after leaving school--the stuff it takes five minutes to relearn by rote: what happened in 1066; the titles of Mark Twain novels or Einstein’s famous formula, for instance. Education along these lines would save taxpayers a lot of money. The government could hand out 3-by-5 cards and dispense with new schools. Students might memorize the list in private juku cram classes or by spending a few minutes with Sarducci. When they passed the Great Exam of Facts, they would receive diplomas.

Things have reached a funny state when educational reformers agree with a comedian. But the joke is actually on us. Americans have lost faith in what education is supposed to do and nostalgically have turned to old-fashioned memorizing. That comes easier than understanding.

We are also in the habit of wanting educators to accomplish what we won’t undertake ourselves, such as teaching children the facts of life plus all the other facts every American should know. Hirsch, of course, is right; communication requires a common background of information. But communication should begin at home. Reciting facts in school is hardly likely to make them stick, unless parents know them, too--and use them.

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While there are many things Americans all know, these items don’t survive the 15 years Hirsch requires for trivia to make it into culture. The fleeting trends on television contain considerable tidbits of information, displayed in sitcoms and advertising spots. TV is the common source of today’s background information.

More children and adults know the names of beer than the names of Presidents. Because brand name recognition requires repetition, the same slogans are repeated, day after day, month after month. They inevitably sink in. And as long as what is seen on television is being continually dumbed down and dumped on viewers, brightening our schools is futile.

It would be better if the broadcast media employed the facts every American should know, rather than have the schools impart information most adults don’t use. Insinuating facts into screenplays and ad copy would be a far more effective means of establishing a national culture than memorizing in schools. John Winthrop and James K. Polk could sell beer. Cable and commercial broadcasting licenses might require a minimum standard of cultural content--so many facts on each and every program or commercial--instead of token gestures of sophistication displayed on Sunday morning.

Reading is the most effective means of acquiring abiding information, if only because print stays put on the page. It can be reread, reviewed and thought about as facts and phrases are repeated by different authors. Reading requires the active intervention of a mind, comparing one context with another. So it is not surprising that those who read books and newspapers are far more literate than those who prefer television. Most Americans do not read a daily newspaper, where Hirsch says our culture is identified. Many Americans do not read at all, except what is required for their work. Aliteracy is the new word for people who can read but would rather not. This is the fundamental reason for cultural dumbness, not failure in our schools.

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There are two cultures in America: one composed of broadcast images and sound bites, the other, a historical culture that is preserved by being written down. But those who would conserve the past are losing out to those living only in the present, even as newspapers are being written to be more like television.

The psychological quality of life for those who read and those who think is markedly superior than for those who don’t. But cultural illiterates don’t know what they’re missing, so they are often hostile to the joys of reading. In the November election, 62% of the voters in Riverside County voted for massive expenditures to build new prisons, but the majority of these voters turned down a much smaller bond issue for expanding public libraries. Promoting the death penalty was a far more effective campaign strategy in Riverside than competing for the title of “education President.”

Flashing facts at schoolchildren may keep some facts alive, a year or two at most. But if these children grow into adults who prefer watching over reading, the whole exercise is pointless. We cannot educate children to be culturally literate when the culture of adults is not.

There are other problems with handing the task of cultural literacy over to our schools instead of taking it upon ourselves. French high schools have for many years established a formal canon of culture that students must pass to receive degrees. The result has been ossification of French culture and nationalistic prejudice. Bureaucratizing information makes rigidity inevitable.

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There’s nothing wrong with facts, but there’s so much more to education. That was the point of Sarducci’s satire. Creativity comes with understanding, not with memorizing. And understanding is far more elusive to achieve. Yes, a person who cannot spell or calculate cannot understand. And verbal aptitude requires a foundation of shared, persisting information. But a person is not educated just because he can win at Trivial Pursuit.

Americans have never really fathomed why the "$64,000 Question” had to be a cheat. The kinds of facts that testify to an intimate understanding are much too recondite for non-specialists to know. So contestants were given answers in advance. The general information most educated people possess would be too common to win prizes, as are the facts in Hirsch’s book. General information is the incidental consequence of understanding, where thinking is the thing.

Some Americans don’t know where the Pacific Ocean is. That’s bad. Worse: Many do not understand the workings of science, the nature of tragedy, how humans differ in their customs, or how to think out opinions on their own. Understanding is the only way of seeing through the facts that inundate us, the circumstances that fail us, the grief that pains us.

Understanding is what the ancient Greeks regarded as a moral trait, a sign of character. The same remains true today. Sensitivity to the environment requires an understanding of ecology. Compassion for the poor requires an understanding of economics. A healthy life requires understanding human biology. And a just society requires understanding why immorality is wrong. If understanding is replaced by memory banks, then our future is in peril. We will have forgotten how to think.

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