Hirsch and Knowledge Building

Let's consider the specific bits of concrete knowledge which Hirsch believes all Americans should have. First, take a minute to build your own idea of what a cultural literacy list should look like. Imagine situations in which you might find yourself talking with somebody from a very different background than yours. In what situations might this happen? What topic areas will you be talking about? These are the questions which one would expect Hirsch would ask himself. One would expect that on the basis of answers to these questions, Hirsch would build his literacy list.

I, for example, frequently talk with people from different backgrounds during job interviews, baseball games, and public lectures. If I consider written communication instead of oral, I also have such interactions when I write books, read the newspaper, or wade through my junk mail. What concrete content does one need to master in order to communicate successfully in such situations?

Hirsch himself provides one answer to this question. He points out that people tend to interpret their experiences using what psychologist Eleanor Rosch calls "basic-level categories". Such basic-level schemata include things like dogs, trees, and flowers. These are schemata which children pick up incidentally as they grow up. From an educator's point of view, these basic-level categories have one very convenient characteristic -- children pick them up along they way as they grow up. Such schemata do not need to be taught; children learn them automatically. So, even though these pieces of knowledge do provide important background knowledge which we must share to communicate, they cannot be what Hirsch decided to build his lists around. There is no need to build a curriculum around things we all learn automatically.

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