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General Knowledge and Arts Education: An Interpretation of E.D. Hirsch's 'Cultural Literacy.'

BY RALPH A. SMITH. University of Illinois Press. 1994. pp. 160. 112.50[pounds].

Why do so many university students have leading difficulties? Why has their possession of background knowledge and cultural information shrunk so? What can be done about it? In 1987 E. D. Hirsch, Jr, published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Taking as his test of cultural literacy the intelligent reading of a newspaper, Hirsch argued that those who cannot do this lack the relevant general information, adequate cultural associations, and appropriate schemata. Consequently he sought to particularize what is needed. To this end he provided a list of items which he thought every literate American would know (supplemented by some items on science which they ought to know).

This knowledge would enable the individual to thrive in the modern world; further, as a shared possession it would advantage society too, diminishing the risks of fragmentation, divisiveness, and public disorder. While acknowledging that much basic knowledge is vague and superficial, and much of it is acquired tacitly, Hirsch still believes it important that schools, particularly in the primary years, aim at teaching' children a cultural core which will provide them with the cognitive maps necessary for effective communication. Hirsch distinguishes between the extensive curriculum, which aims to do this, and the ;intensive syllabus which (particularly at secondary level) encourages `a fully developed understanding of a subject, making one's knowledge of it integrated and coherent.' Both syllabuses he considers necessary.

Smith's interest in the issues raised by Hirsch is whetted by his primary concern for the teaching of the arts. In Spring 1990, as editor of the Journal of Aesthetic Education, he brought out a special issue devoted to the problem of cultural literacy. Contributions were asked to identify the contextual information important for understanding and appreciating works of art. (Later the articles were published as a book, Cultural Literacy and Arts Education.)

In his present General Knowledge and Arts Education Smith surveys the continuing debate. He looks at discussions done independently of Hirsch, but where views run parallel with or converge upon what Hirsch has to say: these include E. H. Gombrich's essay `The Tradition of General Knowledge' (1961), the educational philosophy of Harry S. Braudy, William Levi's The Humanities Today (1970), and Walter Kaufmann's The Future of the Humanities (1977). Smith also discusses the reception of Hirsch's book, focusing in particular on some critics of the book whom he castigates for either misreading or deliberately misrepresenting Hirsch's argument. He notes the insights provided by contributors to his special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education, drawing attention especially to Francis Sparshott's `Contexts of Dance' and Jerrold Levinson's `Musical Literacy'. He also explores certain allied topics of importance, particularly the issue of multiculturalism; in his final chapter he makes specific proposals about the principles that should inform the intensive curriculum governing education in the arts.

Necessarily then, much of Smith's book consists of summaries of what others have said. But he pays close attention to their arguments, his paraphrases are adroit, he sets others' views in an illuminating framework, making clear what he himself chinks and why. Where distinctions can disentangle an argument, he skilfully provides them. His arguments, even on highly contentious issues, are always rational and dispassionate. His style is clear and judicious. When blunt speaking is called for, however, he is admirably forthright: of chose who, for doctrinaire political motives, reviled Hirsch's book he justly remarks, `Unable to accommodate themselves to anything less than revolutionary change, revisionists further beg credibility by turning patronizing and vindictive whenever their ideas meet resistance--an attitude that itself reveals an underlying authoritarianism and elitism'.

Like Hirsch, Smith does not believe that multiculturalism should be a primary goal of American education, and he recognizes that in some guises it represents a threat to the development of the individual, to common communication, and to national solidarity. Extremest demands for multiculturalism explicitly `aim to undermine the significance of Western civilization by claiming that Western traditions, owing to their purported racism, sexism, and elitism, are the cause of most of our modern problems'. The humanities, however, depend for their existence on the maintenance of continuity provided by the handing-on of culture, and upon the humanities largely depend our ideals of freedom of thought and public responsibility. Smith emphasizes chat the general knowledge Hirsch attaches such importance to in no way politically constricts people; rather it is the basis on which any intelligent critique of public affairs is rendered possible. (Malcolm X, equipping himself to be articulate by studying an English dictionary while in prison, is cited as a case in point.) Further, at a time when there is high level of cultural illiteracy in society, there seems something absurd about advocating the inculcation of other cultures when we are so signally failing to transmit our own. This is not to say that, within the intensive curriculum in schools, and at the level which involves what Smith calls `exemplar appreciation', a multicultural dimension is not appropriate, particularly as it serves to `realize one of the important objective of humanistic education, the study of alternative modes of life and expression'.

The last chapter spells out how a humanities-based curriculum, through a balanced fare of art history, art criticism, aesthetics, and making art, may develop in students `cultural percipience'. Here, as elsewhere, Smith tackles current aesthetic and educational problems with acute insight.
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Author:Whittock, Trevor
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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