On Not Knowing Where the Danube Is

  Jerome Shea       April 6, 2008      Weekend Wonk

So last week I expressed dismay, to put it mildly, over the young woman on the quiz show who did not know where the Danube River was located. I promised—or maybe “threatened” is more apt—a follow-up wonk. This did not sit well with the Longsuffering Diana, who saw trouble ahead: her husband becoming especially fatuous and alienating many of his readers into the bargain.

She is probably right as usual, but that has never stopped me before.

But at least let me start by trying to mollify you all preemptively. Am I implying that that young woman is somehow stupid? Not at all. Intelligence is much more than data. Intelligence means a lot more than knowing where a certain river is, or knowing any other specific fact, for that matter. To the contrary, people who can tell you what day of the week the 14th of October, 1939, was and what the weather in Duluth was on that day or people who have memorized the Albuquerque phone directory from Aagaard to Zywica we call idiot savants, a very telling oxymoron. Does knowing where the Danube River flows make me morally superior to that young woman? Of course not. Odds are that I am not morally superior to her anyway and certainly my knowledge European geography has nothing to do with how fine a human being I am. In fact, it may have just the opposite effect.

Because, yes, I know I nonetheless come across as thinking myself morally superior, a smug pedant, which is precisely why the Longsuffering D. was giving me the fish eye. You will have guessed by now that Shea has always been a treasure trove of trivia, a mother lode of disconnected data. And that he was a prissy little whizbang and teacher’s pet starting way back in grammar school. I could crush most of my hapless classmates in that sadistic competition we call the spelling bee.* I was called “the professor” long before I finally became one. This of course is the classic defense mechanism for a kid who was an absolute disaster at sports and all the other things that are truly valued when one is growing up and aching for respect.

Will it help my case at all to admit that I know absolutely nothing about sports or the pop music scene after the 1970s? (I don’t even know enough to offer an example of what I don’t know.) So if you want to embarrass me in those areas, have at it. Humiliation will be good for my soul and revenge probably good for yours. Let me up the ante: I don’t even feel that I need to know any facts about sports or current music. How ‘bout them apples! What a shameless hypocrite!

Last week I used the term “cultural literacy,” a buzzword back in the 1980’s when people were exercised even more than usually about the sad state of American education. A damning report entitled A Nation at Risk came out in 1983. In 1987, E. D. Hirsch Jr. came out with a book proposing at least part of the remedy, as he saw it. It was entitled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and it really got the ball bouncing. His idea was that to be truly literate a student should have a store of touchstones—historical, geographical, literary, political, scientific, etc.—that Hirsch’s generation and previous generations took for granted as commonly known. We are talking about such touchstones as when the Civil War was fought, and why; what the Iliad is and roughly when it was written; how many branches of government we have and what their separate functions are; and so forth. The person who does not know these things—and evidence of this lack in our high school and college students seemed to be alarming—would not be truly literate because these touchstones undergirded serious discussions of issues in newspapers, magazines, and books. They represented assumed knowledge, and the reader who was ignorant of them—just like Shea with his pop music—would not even know what he did not know. He would, literally, not know what he was missing. Here is Hirsch in his own words:

But stability, not change, is the chief characteristic of cultural literacy. Although historical and technical terms may follow the ebb and flow of events, the more stable elements of our national vocabulary, like George Washington, the tooth fairy, the Gettysburg Address, Hamlet, and the Declaration of Independence, have persisted for a long time. These stable elements of the national vocabulary are at the core of cultural literacy.

“The tooth fairy” might strike you as an odd candidate, but consider (Hirsch might say) what a shorthand it provides. Only if you know what the term alludes to can you go on to realize that a writer is using it to describing someone who is hopelessly naïve or blindly, maybe dangerously, optimistic. Only if you have at least a passing recognition of who Hamlet is can you understand that he has always been (among other things) shorthand for paralyzing introspection and brooding. (Hirsch is not even saying that you have to have read the play.)

I hope I have given a fair sketch of Hirsch’s idea because, while I am convinced on rereading him that his heart was in the right place, he took a lot of flak from many directions. For one thing, many public intellectuals on the right—William Bennett, for example—applauded the idea vigorously, and in some quarters with friends like that you don’t need enemies. Not surprising, he was accused of elitism and of privileging a kind of WASP view of history, politics, and the world. Although he protested that kids in the poorer schools and from the lower rungs of society needed this kind of literacy desperately and should be taught it, he was still seen as a reactionary, a champion of the status quo. And some, on both the left and the right, simply thought it was a silly and self-serving idea—revenge of the nerds, if you will.

Stay tuned. We’ll come back to Hirsch next week. I think I’ll go home and challenge the Longsuffering Diana to a game of Trivial Pursuit.

*And of course I knew all the state capitals! Still do. Go ahead, ask me one!

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