Hirsch proposes that becoming literate is a matter of covering the territory on his cultural literacy lists. He assures us that this territory is, in fact, quite small. He states, "It should energize people to learn that only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and the illiterate, between dependence and autonomy." This is actually quite a phenomenal concept. Those of us who put knowledge into computers in order to make them intelligent can tell you that it would take a few hundred pages just to describe the simplest of ideas, such as eating in a restaurant. The amount of detail people know about such situations is phenomenally large. (What kind of fork is likely to be found at a three-star restaurant? What is the relationship between the coffee shop waitress and the short order cook likely to be?)
It's not surprising that as Hirsch has pursued building literacy lists, he has had trouble keeping them down to "a few hundred pages." If you take his books for first-graders through sixth-graders, they sum to over 2000 pages! Who knows what will happen once he gets to junior high and high school?
Determining what literate people know is a rather daunting undertaking. We know so many details about the world around us that any list of them can at best be superficial. The issue after all is not really knowledge in the first place. The issue is that Hirsch and others are appalled when they hear that students in America don't know who Lincoln was or where Seattle is. However, telling them the answer to these questions fails to tell them a few million other facts they don't know that might help make sense of the first facts and in no way assures that they will remember all this stuff anyway. If they now know who Lincoln was the sixteenth president, what do they know? Hirsch's concern is that children don't understand American history, which may well be an important concern, but it will be in no way remedied by trivia about Lincoln. Knowing a random fact is simply that and no more.
The Reading Process and Background Knowledge
Where am I in the content of the book?