Books #3: Cultural literacy

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What is cultural literacy? It's the general body of knowledge that an educated adult is expected to know, that undergirds a culture. You probably know about George Washington and the Cherry Tree, the Three Little Pigs, a glass slipper, the Trojan Horse, the Mona Lisa, Romeo and Juliet, Charlotte's Web.

After a Sonlight education, students can enter in to their culture's narrative. Not because they've sat and memorized facts. (The capital of Alabama is Montgomery. The capital of Alaska is Juneau. The capital of Arizona is Phoenix. . . .)

Not facts, but because the students have entered in to the stories and ideas, to the truth, goodness, and beauty of the world.

Facts? Those are easily searchable, if you ever need to know that the capital of Vermont is Montpelier.

But entering in to the sweetness and sorrow of Wilbur's life? That's irreplaceable and precious.

Life is more rich with at least a passing knowledge of the cultures of the world, of the fascinating characters and delightful stories that we know and love. I still remember my first introduction to the story of Odysseus's return home, and Penelope's test of his identity. I still remember my first O. Henry story. (It was "After Twenty Years," and I was in fifth grade.) I still remember the first time I heard the story of Solomon and the two women with one living baby between them.

Hopefully you, too, have some moments from your childhood that you remember strongly, where you connected with a story, and it became yours. This is what I mean by life being more rich.

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Amy's pic

Amy Lykosh
John and Sarita's oldest daughter
Second-generation Sonlighter
Homeschooling mom to five

Sonlight Curriculum

P.S. I want to leave with an extended quote that I thought was beautiful and important. In an age where most students skim more, where they no longer have even a glancing knowledge of culture, but follow their social media feeds constantly, I love this reminder of why it is important and beautiful to keep cultural literacy alive.

This is from The Shallows, a book about how the Internet has made our brains less able to focus. So if you're worried you won't make it through this quote—that makes sense.

But that's also pretty ironic (you won't be able to read a quote from a book about how, as a culture, we aren't able to read?), so you might challenge yourself to read through these few paragraphs. You can do it! (But if you can't—that's why it's a P.S. It's not an easy quote, by any means.)

It has long been known that the culture a person is brought up in influences the content and character of that person's memory. People born in societies that celebrate individual achievement, like the United States, tend, for example, to be able to remember events from earlier in their lives than do people raised in societies that stress communal achievement, such as Korea.

Psychologists and anthropologists are now discovering that, as Whitman intuited, the influence goes both ways. Personal memory shapes and sustains the "collective memory" that underpins culture. What's stored in the individual mind—events, facts, concepts, skills—is more than the "representation of distinctive personhood" that constitutes the self, writes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer. It's also "the crux of cultural transmission."

Each of us carries and projects the history of the future. Culture is sustained in our synapses.
The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn't just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.

In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what's at stake. "I come from a tradition of Western culture," he wrote, "in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and 'cathedral-like' structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West." But now, he continued, "I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the 'instantly available.'"

As we are drained of our "inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance," Foreman concluded, we risk turning into "pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

Culture is more than the aggregate of what Google describes as "the world's information." It's more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers. (196-197)

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  1. Pingback: Books #2: No Tests | Sonlight Homeschooling Blog