Readers of Education Next are familiar with the latest version of the “Core Standards Initiative for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science,” and most of them likely join with E. D. Hirsch, Chester Finn, and others in approving the March 2010 draft for supplying “good, solid — indeed very ambitious — academic standards for primary and secondary schooling, at least in the two essential subjects of English and math,” as Finn wrote in National Review, and for emphasizing “knowledge of history, and science,” as Hirsch wrote in the Washington Post. (Hirsch added, “music and fine arts I hope will be included in due course.”)
There is, indeed, a wondrous statement on page 31 of the standards that appears under the heading “note on range and content of student reading” which bears the phrase, “Through wide and deep reading of literature and literary nonfiction of steadily increasing sophistication, students gain a reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge, references, and images.”
This is precisely the kind of acknowledgment of cultural literacy that education conservatives and curricular traditionalists of various kinds have been advocating for more than two decades.
Still, I think, another step needs to take place in the next round of revisions. In a word, the “reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge” needs to shift from “note” status to “college-readiness” status. In the current document, the note sits on the page right next to the college- and career-readiness standards, but the standards themselves don’t incorporate the cultural literacy thrust. Right now, they are all skill-oriented (decoding and analyzing texts, synthesizing information, and the like). Not one of the ten standards addresses the knowledge students need to handle college course work.
This makes the college-readiness listing incomplete. For the “reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge, references, and images” is crucial to getting young people into college and keeping them there. When students graduate from high school and head into freshman year in college, they encounter professors and graduate students who teach general and introductory courses in U.S. history, world literature, and so on, many of which are part of general education requirements. In the course of their instruction, teachers refer to other subjects, facts, ideas, and events as a matter of course. For example, a freshman composition instructor who has a set of readings from contemporary science fiction might also refer to the scientific method, to the 1960s race to the moon, to the Cold War, to Isaac Newton and Darwin, etc. These references aren’t formalized into assignments or written into exams. They just fall into the classroom conversation, the general intellectual climate of the course. They mark an implicit expectation of everyone who works and studies there. And they mark a division of students: those who recognize them and those who don’t.
It isn’t hard to imagine that students who occupy that class and don’t have the expected cultural literacy begin to feel estranged from the whole shebang. They may have just as much intelligence and motivation as the kids next to them, but they feel uncertain and disadvantaged. They might wonder how to build up the knowledge reservoir that the other kids have, but they can’t do so and still keep up with the coursework. Others acquired them before college, and now that college is here the ones with knowledge deficits don’t even know how to begin.
For this reason, we must plant some knowledge elements into the college-readiness listing. We shouldn’t expect college teachers to adjust their classroom tactics. They don’t want to have to explain what the word “Renaissance” means. They don’t want to have to recount what happened to Julius Caesar each time they mention his name. They assume a background knowledge that lets them teach their subject in an efficient and rigorous way. Remember, too, that college professors are remarkably resistant to changing their teaching. They operate on the principle of inertia, and they think they’re right.
So, we need to add something to the CCR list. My suggestion is to revise Standard 10 as follows:
Read complex texts independently and proficiently, sustaining concentration and monitoring comprehension in a steady process of increasing sophistication and gaining a reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge, references, and images necessary to handle college course work in the liberal arts.