You cannot begin to understand E. D. Hirsch ("Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know") unless you first understand that there are two kinds of illiteracy.
Some illiterates, including many who have been to school, simply cannot read. That is, they cannot translate symbols on paper into words. They cannot decipher bus route signs, simple instructions, application forms, or letters from friends.
Others -- "functional illiterates," as they are called -- do reasonably well at calling words, but understand too little of what they have read. They may be able to recognize every word in, say, a newspaper article and still have little notion of what the article conveys.
They fail, in Hirsch's phrase, of "cultural literacy." That is, they know so little of what ordinary readers are presumed to know that they are unable to glean much meaning from what they read. Take this lead from a recent Associated Press story:
"The stock market retreated for the second straight session today in selling ascribed to concern over a weak dollar and rising interest rates."
The words, with the possible exception of "ascribed," are well within the grasp of an ordinary fourth-grade student. But what fourth grader would understand what the reporter was talking about? He might know vaguely what a stock market is, but what is a market "session"? What does it mean to say that the market "retreated"? What was being sold. What is a "weak dollar"?
Those who would attack "illiteracy" -- perhaps calling for greater use of phonics -- often have in mind the first variety, although the second may be far more common. Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, for instance, recently announced a major effort to help the "450,000 adult Virginians who cannot read, write or compute beyond the eighth-grade level."
But surely a reasonably bright eighth-grader is sufficiently adept at word-calling to handle the vocabulary of most newspaper articles or employment forms. The problem, Hirsch would insist, is that he lacks the background information necessary to give meaning to the words and phrases.
In short: "Literacy is more than a skill. . . . We know instinctively that to understand what somebody is saying, we must understand more than the surface meanings of words; we have to understand the context as well. To grasp the words on a page, we have to know a lot of information that isn't set down on the page."
That insight, in my view, explains why inner-city youngsters, who often read at or near national norms in the first three grades, tend to fall farther and farther behind their national peers as they progress through the elementary grades. It isn't that their word-attack skills decline, or that their teachers fail to teach them "comprehension skills." The problem is that they lack too much of the knowledge the authors assume they possess.
That brings us to the most controversial part of Hirsch's book. Acting on his notion that the difference between cultural literacy and cultural illiteracy is "a limited body of knowledge" that can be catalogued, the University of Virginia professor ends his book with a long list of words, names and phrases: from Abraham and Isaac, agribusiness and albatross around one's neck, Appomattox, through devaluation, detente and Don Quixote to Yellow Peril, xenophobia, zero-sum game and Zionism.
There will be -- already have been -- great arguments over what the list includes or omits. But his point is sound: There are things that literate Americans know, or, at any rate, know about. A tiny fraction of educated Americans have read "Mein Kampf"; but most of them at least have a pretty good idea of what it is.
Is the list -- and authors' assumptions regarding what literate Americans ought to know -- too "white"? Orlando Patterson, the black Harvard historian-sociologist, takes the question straight-on.
"The people who run society at the macro-level must be literate in this culture. For this reason, it is dangerous to overemphasize the problems of basic literacy or the relevancy of literacy to specific tasks, and more constructive to emphasize that blacks will be condemned in perpetuity to oversimplified, low-level tasks and will never gain their rightful place in controlling the levers of power unless they also acquire literacy in this wider cultural sense."
A friend of mine puts it more simply. "If you don't know anything, it's hard to learn anything else." " . . . they lack the background information necessary to give meaning to the words and phrases."