Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987.
* * *
The new America, where people of color make up a numerical majority, is not a think-tank projection. It may well be the condition of the people born in the United States this very year. But an America where nonwhites hold a majority of the power in civic life is much farther off. If you are an immigrant to the United States—or, if you were born here but are the first in your family to go to college, and thus a socioeconomic new arrival; or, say, a black citizen in Ferguson, Missouri deciding for the first time to participate in a municipal election, and thus a civic neophyte—you have a single overriding objective shared by all immigrants at the moment of arrival: figure out how stuff really gets done here.
That means understanding what’s being said in public, in the media, in colloquial conversation. It means understanding what’s not being said. Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power. And so any endeavor that makes it easier for those who do not know the memes and themes of American civic life to attain them closes the opportunity gap. It is inherently progressive.
Of course, it’s not just newcomers who need greater command of common knowledge. People whose families have been here ten generations are often as ignorant about American traditions, mores, history, and idioms as someone “fresh off the boat.”
The more serious challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. Americans need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that diversity can be most fully activated.
But why a list, one might ask? Aren’t lists just the very worst form of rote learning and standardized, mechanized education? Well, yes and no. It is true that lists alone, with no teaching to bring them to life and no expectation that they be connected to a broader education, are somewhere between useless and harmful.
Lists that catalyze discussion and even debate, however, are plenty useful. If you open up Hirsch’s list at random you’re certain to find entries that launch deeper inquiry and learning and that are helpful to know if you want to be a capable citizen. In fact, since I started writing this essay, dipping into the list has become a game my high-school-age daughter and I play together. Consider, from pages 204 and 205:
Sherman Anti-Trust Act
Sodom and Gomorrah
Speak softly and carry a big stick
Spirit of ‘76 (image)
I’ll name each of those entries, she’ll describe what she thinks to be its meaning. If she doesn’t know, I’ll explain it and give some back story. If I don’t know, we’ll look it up together. This of course is not a good way for her teachers to teach the main content of American history or English. But it is definitely a good way for us both to supplement what school should be giving her.