Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

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A surprise bestseller when first published in 1987, this groundbreaking work explains the ideas behind the Core Knowledge movement.

“To be culturally literate,” says E. D. Hirsch, Jr., “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” To be able to function in contemporary society, one must possess the background knowledge that literate writers and speakers assume their audiences already share. Those who know it are culturally literate; the opportunities of a free society are open to them. Schools need to impart a coherent core of knowledge in order to prepare students to thrive in the modern world.

Hirsch notes that “the idea of cultural literacy does not embrace the whole of education. This book focuses sharply on the background knowledge necessary for functional literacy and effective national communication. This limited educational goal . . . needs special emphasis today” when teachers in American schools “are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

As a starting point for defining what literate Americans know, the book includes a list of about 5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts, intended to illustrate the shared knowledge needed for effective communication.

“Because it so powerfully demonstrates that reading—like thinking—is not a skill that can be separated from substance and content, I can think of no other book of recent years more important for the formulation of curriculum policy than this one.”
—Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, 1974 to 1997


ISBN: 978-0-394758-43-5

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