Hirsch roots his claims in what cognitive scientists call "schema theory." Schema theory lays out a picture of how people organize the truly astounding amount of background knowledge which they accumulate about the world. This theory asserts that such knowledge is organized into mental units called "schemas." When people learn, when they build knowledge, they are either creating new schemas, or linking together preexisting schemas in new ways. Many of the schemas which people develop are idiosyncratic. Everybody has different experiences, so everyone develops a somewhat different view of the world. However, we also share many common experiences. Most Americans have seen a baseball game, know who the President is, and have eaten at McDonald's. So, many of the schemas which people develop are shared schemas, ones which others have developed as well. Shared schemas constitute an important part of our shared cultural knowledge.
When people communicate, they depend on these shared schemas. Jay Leno can't make a joke about McDonald's unless he can reasonably assume that most of his audience has eaten there. The more background knowledge two people share, the less they have to make explicit in their conversations. This is the central observation on which Hirsch bases his program. His reasoning seems straightforward enough: In order to enable each American to communicate with any other American, we must make sure that every American shares a common set of schemas which may be taken for granted as shared background knowledge.
The Role of Background Knowledge in Communication
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