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Danube Revisited

Last week I undertook a half-hearted defense of E. D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy idea. In truth, though, it does have the odor of the flaky about it. For one thing, it points up how uncomfortable we are with the whole idea of so-called facts: what I know is indispensable knowledge; what you know (and I happen not to) is trivia, from which the word “trivial” derives. And we all still feel the sting of being knocked out of the spelling bee, of our friend’s supercilious smirk when we assumed that Boxing Day had something to do with fisticuffs, and, yes, of not knowing that the Danube flowed through Europe. Nobody likes a smarty pants (which is why we often took revenge at recess).

Then there is a practical question: who decides what gets into the list and what doesn’t? And where do you stop? Eventually and inevitably, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy appeared. (My copy is a handsome red three-pounder, an ideal book to spend a summer with in a cave, emerging in September a true polymath.) Paul Robeson did make the cut (as I think he should have) but Joe Hill, the martyred early 20th century labor hero of whom he sings, did not. I would certainly have included him. Ask any twenty people and I am sure you will get twenty people who will take issue with one inclusion or another. Can’t be helped but it doesn’t, in turn, help Hirsch’s cause.

Underlying all this is a much more serious point. Hirsch was reacting to an educational philosophy that he felt emphasized teaching children not so much necessary facts but such general skills—and enthusiasms—that they would be eager to discover facts for themselves. The apothegm “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire” neatly, if somewhat simplistically, captures this distinction. In trying to correct what he felt was a half-truth, Hirsch was readily likened to a Dickens character, Thomas Gradgrind (who didn’t make the cut, either), who believed in a rigorous education in facts and facts alone—that little children were indeed buckets to be filled, filled with whatever knowledge would make them docile citizens and good workers—an educational “theory” long discredited. In fact, Gradgrind is the target of Dickens’s satire.

In a wonderful essay entitled “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts,” Harvard psychologist William G. Perry Jr. draws some distinctions that touch upon this point and are worth our attention. Reflecting upon students and education, he talks about “cow” and “bull,” cow being “data, however relevant, without relevancies” and bull being “relevancies, however relevant, without data.” (The corresponding verbs are “to cow” and “to bull,” and we may as well dub the practitioners “the cowster” and “the bullster” and have done with it.) All too many students, he says, have been convinced, from grammar school on up, that “a fact is a fact” and have committed their trust, their learning strategies, and even their love to that end: to have learned and remembered that Columbus discovered America in 1492 is a laudable end in itself, evidence of a truly educated person. This is why true/false tests and multiple choice tests are meat and drink to the cowster: the more answers you get right, the more educated you must be.

Perry, as do most college professors, disagrees. Facts are not ideas; they exist only to serve ideas. A bullster, while often too lazy to learn the facts that he needs, nonetheless instinctively realizes that true education lies in asking oneself, for example, how 1492 was reckoned in our calendar or exactly what the word “discovered” implies in that sentence or perhaps what facts might make the case that Leif Ericson (or Saint Brendon or the American Indians), not Christopher Columbus, discovered America. It is no accident that the bullster’s meat and drink is not the multiple choice test but the essay test.

One of the ironies of this situation is that the bullster is traditionally seen as a lazy fellow, an intellectual shirker, while the cowster gets our respect and sympathy if only because it is obvious that he worked so hard. The cowster may be a plodder, but he is an honest plodder and no threat to academic order. But even though it goes against our sympathies, says Perry, an essay that is 90% bull should get at least a passing grade, while an essay that is 90% cow should fail. The important point, however, is that cow and bull are complementary. Each in itself is insufficient: “The masculine context [bull] must embrace the feminine particular [cow].” Indeed this is “the nuptial [any professor] celebrates with a straight A on examinations.”

So. Have we rehabilitated the humble fact? I’m still not sure. I think we have a love/hate relationship going here. Hirsch campaigned strenuously to restore facts to their rightful place in the schools, but seemingly in vain. And yet five years earlier, in 1982, a board game hit the stores and quickly became almost a national obsession. I refer, of course, to “Trivial Pursuit.”

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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