Mike Royko, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote about what it means to be culturally aware in a society saturated with too many things to be aware of. Royko tells a story of being at a cocktail party where "everybody in the parlor had taken a firm position of one of the great issues of the day." The issue in this case was who the better talk show host was: Jay Leno or David Letterman. Royko was forced into confessing that he hadn't watched the Tonight Show in 15 years, and had only seen The Late Show with David Letterman once. The other guests were appalled. As Royko tells it, one serious looking guest told him, "I would think that as an observer of popular culture and social trends, you would feel it is your professional obligation to watch shows that are so much a part of the American fabric."
Royko's response to this is a heartfelt refusal to bow to some rule that demands one know certain things. "The fact is," he said, "there was a time when everybody would have had to have had an opinion on David Letterman and Jay Leno. But that was before TV viewers could say, as Martin Luther King Jr. once did, 'Free at last!' Yes, there was once a time when the choice was ABC, CBS, NBC, and one or two local stations and the visual trash they tossed my way. But now, thanks to the miracle of cable TV, satellites and the VCR, I have been freed from network tyranny and have my choice of every conceivable form of visual trash."
When today's world is so full of options, why should Royko be held responsible for something he has no desire to know about? Hirsch's idea that in order to be intelligent we should strive to know everything that makes up the "core" of our culture is an impossible and useless goal. When culture was younger and more tightly defined, it might not have been unreasonable to ask that an educated person be able to recognize all the cultural icons. But, the depth and breadth of today's culture makes that a ridiculous requirement.
The Unliteracy Policy
Where am I in the content of the book?