To Read Dickens, It Helps to Know French History and the Bible

The value of teaching cultural literacy
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Readers of The Hunger Games would benefit from understanding Greek and Roman mythology (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

I started my middle-school English and Latin classes the same way every day: with short lessons in etymology and cultural literacy—knowledge of a society’s history, references, symbols, and stories. So, a typical day’s lesson might include the etymology of the word “calculus” (Latin for “small stone, pebble” used by Romans in order to calculate sums in the marketplace) and, in order to maintain a theme, a lesson in Demosthenes. Considered the greatest of Greece’s orators, he overcame a childhood stutter by filling his mouth with pebbles and speaking through them, a remedy portrayed in the film The King’s Speech.

I teach these daily etymology and cultural literacy items not for their individual educational merit, but because, taken together, they form the foundation of my students future learning.

Take for example, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels to teach, and a perennial favorite among my eighth-grade students. The first page, in all of its beautiful rhetoric and brilliant prose, poses a real challenge to even the most dedicated modern reader. The first chapter sets the stage for the action to come: Dickens explains the political and social strife in England and France through references to cultural, literary, and religious figures.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and queen with a fair face on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the state preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.

These allusions to the historical, political, and religious state of France and England in 1775 are only as effective as the shared well of knowledge between reader and writer. I don’t expect my students to be able to tell me who the “Cock-lane ghost” was, or recognize the execution of the Chevalier de Barre in Dickens’s description of a youth who refused to bow to a religious procession and was sentenced to have his hands cut off and tongue torn out. I do, however, expect that they will recognize who the “king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face,” are George III and Charlotte Sophia, and that the “king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face,” are Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette. I’d like them to understand that “loaves and fishes” alludes to a story in the Bible about Jesus the feeding multitudes with a meager amount of food, because those kings are queens were most certainly not feeding their subjects at all.

Without an education in these cultural symbols, this first page of Dickens’s classic yields only frustration. It is little more than unintelligible gobbledygook, albeit framed in some of the loveliest examples of serial antithesis and verbal irony in literature. Once my students have a passing familiarity with that well of cultural knowledge, they are far more able to understand the story and delight in the literary Easter eggs scattered throughout.

So if I have any hope of pulling my students into the exciting tale of revolution, love, thievery, and resurrection, I have to teach them about the culture and events to which Dickens refers. 

Not a fan of Dickens? Fine. I don’t have to reach for works in the Western literary canon in order to illustrate the benefits of cultural literacy. Nearly every one of my students has a copy of the Hunger Games on their shelf. It, too, is rendered richer given an understanding of Roman history and Greek mythology. As Robert Pondiscio wrote in the Wall Street Journal,

Not only can Katniss Everdeen, the "Hunger Games" heroine, take on the totalitarians ruling her fictional homeland—she also has the power to get kids thinking about citizenship, government power, civil liberties and the influence of the media. […]

The books also invite exploration of the literary precedents and historical examples. … How many students know the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which inspired these novels? Life in the Capitol begs to be compared with the excesses of ancient Rome and its gladiators. This historical analogy was clearly in the mind of the book's author: Panem, after all, is the Latin word for bread. Panem and circuses, anyone? 

Not everyone is a fan of making cultural literacy a part of the American educational experience. One criticism of including cultural literacy in school curricula is that it focuses on the Western canon of “dead, white males” to the exclusion of other cultures. E.D. Hirsch concedes that his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy is an ongoing work in progress, as “defining cultural literacy is an ongoing project, and this is only a first step.” As the modern world becomes increasingly diverse, the “culture” in the definition of cultural literacy is a moving target, one that teachers and parents will have to continually expand.

Indeed, an education in cultural literacy can empower those who have been traditionally excluded in civic debate. It equips citizens and non-citizens alike in the vocabulary and knowledge they will need to understand American culture. Children with access to ivy-covered institutions will benefit from an education in cultural literacy, yes, but children who are traditionally denied access to those schools can benefit even more.

While an education in cultural literacy offers great benefits in teaching literature and history, there’s a more important educational reason to include it in the curriculum. According to the forthcoming Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel,

In a cartoon by the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson a bug eyed school kid asks his teacher, ‘Mr. Osborne, can I be excused? My brain is full!’ If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind. However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later on.

In other words, the more you know, the more you will be able to learn. Cultural literacy is not just prior knowledge that allows for improved learning. It is the sticky glue between bits of knowledge that allows students to grab—and hold on to—new information and connections. Again, from Make It Stick,

Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning. For example, the more of the unfolding story of history you know, the more of it you can learn. And the more ways you give that story meaning, say by connecting it to your understanding of human ambition and the untidiness of fate, the better the story stays with you. […] People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.

Teaching for mastery should be the goal of all teachers, a goal far more challenging than teaching to any test. It is a daily exercise in making sure the lessons and ideas and concepts we share with our students remain in their long-term memory after the bell rings at the end of the period. If teaching cultural literacy in schools offers a way to cement this knowledge, turn short-term memory into long-term learning, and prime students’ brains for future knowledge, it’s worth making the subject a regular part of the curriculum.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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