Christian Education in Seven Books (5)—Cultural Literacy

Christian Education in Seven Books (5)—Cultural Literacy

What kind of education would have the audacity to call itself Christian if its graduates have only the faintest grasp of Christian doctrine, history, or worship, and if they feel no loyalty to the civilisation that bequeathed them most of the blessings they now enjoy?

I would not be surprised by the “Huh?” reaction to a number of books on this list. After all, they are not “how-to” manuals on education. Instead, each of them represents one major aspect of what comprises a Christian education. This is why all of the authors or the books could be substituted with similar books or authors saying the same thing. This is the case with the fifth book in our series, Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch.

For busy homeschooling parents or school administrators, this is not a book you need to plough through from cover to cover, though you’ll likely benefit if you are able to. The first chapter and the appendix will, however, give you the main idea. Hirsch’s thesis is simple: to function in society, people need background knowledge that we absorb from our wider culture. Sayings, mottoes, proverbs, quotes, aphorisms, place names, historical events, abbreviations, prominent people and places and dates, fables, works of art and many other items of knowledge are not learnt alphabetically from an encyclopaedia. They are taught when a culture imparts its traditions to its young over many years.

Without this background knowledge – this literacy in one’s own culture – one is a stranger in your own home, a foreigner in your own country. Educated writing and discourse will go over your head, because you lack the cultural literacy to decipher all the background knowledge that is present in the terms.

Consider this sentence: “Covid has brought about an Orwellian scenario, where the raison d’être of government has devolved from a Jeffersonian ideal to a Machiavellian one”. Background knowledge of Western philosophy, political theory, 20th-century literature, and borrowed phrases from French is necessary to make sense of that sentence. Hirsch argues that this kind of cultural literacy is declining, and with it, much breakdown in communication and mutual understanding.

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