Cultural Literacy Best for the Young Person’s Mind and the Nation

Terrence Moore

March 1, 2003

The classical view of education holds that human beings are thinking creatures. Unlike other living beings, humans live by their intelligence. We want to know things. Specifically, we want to know the truth. From birth, the curiosity of children is astounding. Children observe everything around them. They pick up language at an astonishing rate. And as soon as they begin to speak, they ask the question “What is it?” of everything that catches their attention. Children demonstrate what is true of all people: we are natural learners. Therefore, any plan of education should take advantage of young people’s natural curiosity. Schemes that stall children in their learning because “they are not ready for it,” or that use various gimmicks that sugar-coat learning as though children take to their books as they do their medicine, are not only unnecessary but counterproductive and insulting to humanity.

As children grow, their questions become more complex and their abilities to assimilate their observations more advanced. At every child’s disposal is a veritable arsenal of mental capacities: memory, reason, imagination, a sense of beauty, a facility for language. Yet classical education does not simply leave children to their own inclinations. Rather, it feeds and directs and strengthens children’s mental abilities in the same way that sports exercise their physical abilities. The mind, like the body, atrophies when not well-trained. The emphasis on rigorous mental training is an important difference between classical and modern, progressive education. By stressing childhood “creativity” and “spontaneity,” without making children do much work or work on anything important, the modern school turns bright young children into bored adults who do not know very much. It is the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Falling in love with our talents, without making any substantial effort to improve them, leads nowhere.

So classical education puts young minds to work. It leads young people to understand themselves and the world around them. Students do not learn in the abstract. They must acquire concrete skills and gain knowledge in certain disciplines to participate fully and effectively in the human community. To achieve these ends hundreds of schools across the nation have adopted the Core Knowledge Sequence for their K-8 curriculum. Core Knowledge is based upon E. D. Hirsch’s idea of “cultural literacy.” For people to communicate effectively, according to Hirsch, they must not only use the same language. To express and understand complex ideas, they must possess a reservoir of common facts, ideas, and references that constitute a people’s culture. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the best example of a leader who relied on cultural literacy to convey his ideas. Like other Americans on the frontier, he had little formal education. Yet he read intensively the works of Shakespeare, the King James’ Bible, the fables of Æsop, Euclid’s geometry, and the documents of the American Founding. Few men in our history have been able to express so forcefully and with such economy the principles of freedom and human dignity:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg instantly knew that he referred to the “proposition” of the Declaration of Independence. For this reason, the Gettysburg Address is not only one of the greatest speeches in our history; it is the shortest. Lincoln did not have to retell the history of the Revolution. His fellow Americans already knew it.

The danger we presently face as a nation is that, in the words of Hirsch, “many young people today strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations.” The same observation applies to the realm of politics, the financial and industrial world, and all other facets of American life. Employers are constantly amazed at what their employees do not know and therefore cannot do. In politics, the pregnant allusions of a Lincoln would fall upon deaf ears. Make no mistake. Cultural literacy is not merely ornamental trivia. The purpose is not to make Jeopardy champions. Rather, cultural literacy is essential to a nation and its citizens. A culturally illiterate America cannot live up to the demands placed upon us by history and the present condition of the world. A culturally illiterate individual cannot comprehend vast areas of human knowledge necessary for his political, economic, social, and moral well-being.

Terrence Moore grew up and attended public schools in Texas. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His dissertation is entitledThe Enlightened Curriculum: Liberal Education in Eighteenth-Century British Schools.Dr. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.