Learning by Story

by Neil Postman

Now THAT THE thunderstorm ignited by the celebrated texts of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., (Cultural Literacy) and Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) has passed over the land and appears to present no further danger to our intellectual landscape, it may be useful to review, under clearer skies, the lessons to be drawn from the drenching. To do this, I will attempt a deconstruction of their texts—deconstruction being the method employed today by academics whose positions have been secured by tenure. In other words, I will proceed on the assumption that it is permissible for a reader to believe that he knows more about a text than its writer, and is therefore free to instruct the writer on what his book is really about.

To start at the end, as it were, I want to show that in Cultural Literary, Professor Hirsch believes he is offering a solution to a problem when in fact he is onlv raising a question—and a desperate question at that. In The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Bloom suggests an answer to Hirsch’s question for reasons that are not entirely clear to him but are, of course, to me.
For those who have not read Cultural Literary, I should say that much of the book’s popularity is attributable to its appendix, which consists of a list of 5,000 names, dates, aphorisms, and concepts that Hirsch and some of his colleagues believe a literate person ought to know. Americans love lists, especially lists compiled by experts; Americans also love tests, and Hirsch’s list is easily transformed into a kind of cultural-literacy test that can be administered anywhere, including the living room and the classroom. Aside from the fact that Hirsch is a lucid and sometimes elegant writer, very little else in the book can account for its success either with teachers or with the common reader. To paraphrase an old saw, what is true in Hirsch’s book is not startling, and what is startling is not true.
Let us start with what is true. Hirsch believes that the more one knows, the more one can learn—a proposition with which few would disagree. He also believes that you can’t read reading. You have to read about something. And therefore, to be literate, you have to know about the things you are reading about. There is no disputing this proposition either, or its negative formulation, which is that if you do not know anything about what you are reading about, you may be said to be illiterate in that subject. I have a son who works as an astrophysicist and who has published several papers in his specialty, which happens to be the structure of galaxies. He has been kind enough to send a copy of each of his papers, in the expectation, no doubt, that I will take pleasure in reading them. I would if I could. Unfortunate - lv, I cannot, for the simple reason that I do not know the meanings of 90 percent of the words in his papers. I can pronounce the words, of course, but this is quite different from reading them. Hirsch would say that my problem is that I am not literate in astrophysics, and in this he would be entirely correct. I do much better, by the way, with my daughter’s papers on the subject of theater history. When she writes about naturalism or realism or Ibsen’s point of view on idealism, I know perfectly well what I am reading about, because I know the meanings of her words.
Hirsch is simply saying that every subject has its special language, and you cannot know the subject, or read the subject, if you do not know its language. There is an old and somewhat paradoxical joke about this point. It tells of a mother who is boasting to a friend about her son’s academic prowess. To prove her case, she calls her son into the room and says, “Harold, say something in geometry for Mrs. Freeman.”The point of the joke is supposed to be that the mother has demonstrated only her ignorance, not Harold’s knowledge. But in fact there is no point to the joke, because Harold could say many things in geometry, such as “Parallel lines never meet,” and “Equals added to equals are equal,”and “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”
These ideas—the more you know, the more you can learn; you can’t read reading; every subject makes use of a special language—are, as I have said, certainly true, but they are hardly startling. I do not know a single teacher who disputes them, although I suppose it does no harm to be reminded of them once in a while. Hirsch proceeds from these truisms to a consideration of the appalling ignorance of our students. This is a condition that most teachers, especially high school and college teachers, have noticed. Almost every teacher has some favorite examples of student ignorance, and more than occasionally these days essays appear in the popular press documenting our students’ curious illiteracies. Some months ago I received in the mail such an essay, written by a teacher at a community college in Olympia, Washington. He had prepared an eighty-sixquestion cultural-literacy test, which he gave to the twenty-six students in his class. The students ranged in age from eighteen to fifty-four, and all had completed at least one quarter of college-level work. Here are some things his students knew: Charles Darwin invented gravity. Jesus Christ was born in the sixteenth century. The Great Gats by was a magician in the 1930s. Heinrich Himmler invented the Heimlich maneuver. Benito Mussolini was a Russian leader of the eighteenth century. Pablo Picasso painted masterpieces in the twelfth century. Socrates was an American Indian chieftain. Mark Twain invented the cotton gin. The city of Belfast is located in Egypt, Beirut is in Germany, and Bogotá is in China.
Of course, there’s some pretty funny stuff here, but we had all better keep in mind that the furniture in our heads has its own peculiar gaps and disarrangements, which might be hard to conceal were we confronted by a cultural-literacy test. In my own case, I find that scarcely a day passes without my hearing for the first time about a person or place about which everyone else seems to know. I suspect that you are familiar with this problem as well. If you are, there is a very good reason for our shared ignorance, and I will come to it in a moment. But here I must take notice of what is both startling and false in Hirsch’s book. Faced with the fact of widespread ignorance, Hirsch comes up with an explanation that must have been a considerable challenge to his imagination. The problem, he says, is “educational formalism.”He means by this that teachers are no longer concerned with academic content but are instead obsessed with the processes or skills of learning. We try to teach how scientists think, but without reference to the content of science. We try to teach how to read, but ignore what the text is about. We try to teach what historians do, but without attending to history itself. And so on. That is why, he says, our students are culturally illiterate and cannot learn very much. Teachers no longer give students names, places, dates—in a word, the facts.
I CALL EXPLANATION wrong for two reasons, First, if there is one thing that most teachers in America are not concerned with, it is the processes of learning. This can be verified by spending a few days visiting representative American classrooms, an inconvenience that Hirsch apparently did not wish to endure. Instead, he draws his evidence from textbooks on methods of teaching, which have as much relevance to what is actually happening in classrooms as campaign speeches have to do with the actual running of government. But Hirsch is wrong for another, even more important reason. As any teacher who is concerned with process can tell you, it is scarcely possible to teach how something is done without also teaching content. How can you teach how a poem might be read without also teaching the poem? How can you teach how a scientific theory is developed without reference to the great theories that the great scientists have constructed? The thing cannot be done—at least, almost cannot be done. A small exception might be made for the occasion of teaching the letters of the alphabet. It is probably true that when the very young are being taught to read, the emphasis is almost wholly on how to decode the words. What the words say is often treated as irrelevant. This may or may not be a mistake— Bruno Bettelheim thinks it is—but in any case it cannot account for the widespread cultural illiteracy that is so disturbing to Hirsch. There are, to put it plainly, very few school systems anywhere that do not start emphasizing the content of subjects by, let us say, the fourth grade.
Nonetheless, Hirsch is convinced that educational formalism is at the root of the ignorance problem, and he offers a solution in the form of his list, which, he suggests, contains the references essential to a culturally literate person in America, and which any curriculum ignores at its peril. If I may borrow an aphorism from the turn-ofthe-century Viennese journalist Karl Kraus: Hirsch’s list is the disease for which it claims to be the cure—that is to say, its arbitrariness only demonstrates the futility of trying to do what he wants us to do. His list includes Norman Mailer but not Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Arthur Miller, or Tennessee Williams. It includes Ginger Rogers but not Richard Rodgers, Carl Rogers, or Buck Rogers, let alone Fred Rogers. The second greatest home-run hitter of all time, Babe Ruth, is there, but not the greatest home-run hitter, Hank Aaron. The Marx brothers are there but not Orson Welles, Frank Capra, John Ford, or Steven Spielberg. Sarah Bernhardt is included but not Leonard Bernstein. Rochester, New York, is on the list. Trenton, New Jersey, one of our most historic cities, is not. Hirsch includes the Battle of the Bulge, which pleased my brother, who fought in it in 1944. But my uncle who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in 1942. would have been disappointed to find that it didn’t make the list. (I refer here to the list as it appears in the first, 1987, edition of the book. Hirsch has since written a book that supplements the list, which only underscores the futility of his enterprise.)
I could go on with this almost endlessly, as anyone could. For every person, event, city, book, or saving Hirsch lists, one could list ten he has omitted that would be equally relevant or irrelevant. And therein lies the paradox. Hirsch believes that he is offering educators a solution to ignorance when he is in fact only posing an unanswered question about its origin. The question is this: What are educators to do when they must serve in a culture inundated by information?
From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium—light waves, airwaves, ticker tapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, printing presses—information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage—on paper, on video and audio tapes, on discs, film, and silicon chips—is an even greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved and used. More is being added every hour, every minute, every second, Clearly, we are swamped by information. Drowning in it. Overwhelmed by it. And what is Hirsch’s solution? We should use the schools to teach the kids some information. No. It is not a serious idea. We might even say it is a profoundly useless idea. But if viewed as a series of questions, Hirsch’s book gives us something serious to think about. How can we help our students to organize information? How can we help them to sort the relevant from the irrelevant? How can we help them to make better use of information? How can we keep them from being driven insane by information?
AN ANSWER OF sorts, as I have said, is suggested, indirectly, in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom is a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and to the astonishment of everyone in the publishing industry, his book was a runaway best seller. The astonishment arises because neither his style nor his subject matter is of the sort that has ever been the stuff of big-time sales. Nonetheless, he has something to say, and it is in the form of a serious complaint. His complaint is that most American professors have lost their nerve. They have become moral relativists, which means that they are not capable of providing their students with a clear understanding of what is right thought and proper behavior. Moreover, they are also intellectual relativists, meaning that the professors refuse to defend their own culture and are no longer committed to preserving and transmitting the best that has been thought and said.
Bloom’s solution is that we go back to the basics of Western thought. He wants us to teach our students what Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Saint Augustine, and other luminaries have had to say on the great ethical and epistemological questions. He believes that by acquainting themselves with great books our students will acquire a moral and intellectual foundation that will keep them from doing stupid things like laughing at Woody Allen movies, listening to rock music, and making life difficult for school administrators and professors. Bloom does not directly address the question of information chaos; he does not admit that there are fatal weaknesses in moral absolutism; and he does not acknowledge that there never was a time when American public education devoted itself to the study of Greek philosophy, German idealism, or, for that matter, most of what he covers in his philosophy courses at the University of Chicago.
Nonetheless, he is, in my opinion, on the right track. Although he does not seem to know it, Bloom is arguing that students need stories, narratives, tales, theories (call them what you will), that can serve as moral and intellectual frameworks. Without such frameworks, we have no way of knowing what things mean. Bloom understands that ignorance is not simply a matter of unfamiliarity with things in general. It is a matter of not knowing things that one needs to know in particular. You do not know who manufactured the paper from which this magazine was made, and you do not know the name of the editor’s wife, and you do not know Allan Bloom’s telephone number, and you do not know 50 billion other facts of the world, because you deem them of no importance to your life. For this you should not be charged with ignorance. You should be praised for intellectual selectivity. But on what basis do you make your selections? How do you know what you need to know? And how do you know when and where and how you need to know it?
THE ANSWER, I believe, can be put in the following way (for which formulation I am indebted to my colleague Professor Christine Nystrom): Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence. I am not talking here about those specialized stories that we call novels, plays, and epic poems. I am talking about the more profound stories that people, nations, religions, and disciplines unfold in order to make sense out of the world. For example, ever since we can remember, all of us have been telling ourselves stories about ourselves, composing life-giving autobiographies of which we are the heroes and heroines. If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore. A story provides a structure for our perceptions; only through stories do facts assume any meaning whatsoever. This is why children everywhere ask, as soon as they have the command of language to do so, “Where did I come from?” and, shortly after, “What will happen when I die?” They require a story to give meaning to their existence. Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die.
Nations, as well as people, require stories and may die for lack of a believable one. In America we have told ourselves for two hundred years that our experiment in government is part of God’s own plan. That has been a marvelous story, and it accounts for much of the success America has had. In the Soviet Union they have told themselves a different story: that their experiment in government is history's plan. And in seventy years their story has transported them into a position of worldwide importance. I have the impression that neither of these nations believes its story now—and woe unto both if they do not find some other. Nations need stories, just as people do, to provide themselves with a sense of continuity, or identity. But a story does even more than that. Without stories as organizing frameworks we are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. Merely listing them cannot help us, because without some tale to guide us there is no limit to the list. A story gives us direction by providing a kind of theory about how the world works—and how it needs to work if we are to survive. Without such a theory, such a tale, people have no idea what to do with information. They cannot even tell what is information and what is not.
It is odd that Bloom did not see that the student uprisings of the late 1960s (which he detested) were an attempt to construct a new story for a changing world—a world paradoxically made smaller by new technologies of information and destruction but at the same time larger than ever. It is even odder that he rejects the need of the young to construct such a story to help them sort through the collection of disconnected, fragmented diploma requirements that is called a curriculum at most universities. It is odd because that is what Bloom’s complaint is really about: the fact that our young people have no stories to guide them in managing the information of their culture and directing their education. He wants them to go back to the great books because they may find there the stories that have in the past given coherence and purpose to learning.
Perhaps that will work. But it will not, I think, unless the young are helped to reread those tales, to reconstruct them in light of the problems of our own times. They will not be helped by a dogged insistence that what was good enough for Plato and Cicero and the German idealists and even for Allan Bloom is good enough for them. It isn’t. The purposes we conceive for learning are tied to our larger conception of the world, and the problems we face, and the way we have developed our story at a given time. Does one learn for the greater glory of God? to bring honor to one’s family or tribe? for the fulfillment of a nation’s destiny? to hasten the triumph of the proletariat? Few today find such purposes meaningful, because few believe anymore in the larger stories from which these purposes derive. Even fewer, I think, believe in the story of technological progress, which tells of a paradise to be gained through bigger and better machines. And the yuppie’s tale, the story that tells us that life’s most meaningful activity is to buy things, is an impoverished one indeed, which leads, in the end, to cynicism and hopelessness. Even the great modern story known as inductive science is not now as gripping as it once seemed. To the question “Where did we come from?" science answers, “It was an accident.”To the question “How will it all end?" science’s handmaiden, technology, answers, “Probably by an accident.”And more and more of our young are finding that the accidental life is scarcely worth living.
I am not wise enough to say where the young can find what they need. Is it possible that all America can offer them is a list of names and places, and a shopping bag of books about the world as people conceived it in longago places and times? That, and the advice “JUST SAY NO" to drugs? Who will help them find out what they need to say yes to? How can they be helped to read, and write, a coherent story for our times? That is the educational issue of our era. And that is why Hirsch and Bloom are worth reading. Hirsch’s book is useful to us because, unknowingly, he makes apparent the questions we need to answer. Bloom’s book is useful to us because he suggests a solution. He believes that the texts that provided him with a sense of moral and intellectual purpose will serve for everyone. This is mere arrogance and can be disregarded. But we should thank him for reminding us that education must have a purpose, and a purpose connected to some larger, coherent tale. If we cannot find a way to help our students discover such a purpose, by constructing a meaningful tale, they are very likely to remain culturally illiterate—not because they do not know what is on Hirsch’s list but because it won’t make any difference if they do.