Do you know about Confucius, Captain Cook, a tabula rasa, a tango, ships that pass in the night? Can you define Lent, Leonardo da Vinci, leprechaun and the meaning of the expression, "a leopard doesn't change its spots?"
These are just a few of the 7,000 terms and snippets on "The List" of American cultural literacy, included in a recent book by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a University of Virginia professor of English.The science terms, about 2,000 of them, were contributed by physicist James Trefil, who spoke at Utah State University last week.
Trefil defined cultural literacy as "a matrix of knowledge that educated people assume other educated people possess." These are terms that newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Newsweek, should be able to use without having to explain, he said, and terms that are used in our societal debates.
"Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" was published last year and has become a best seller. Trefil said it, along with another similar book, hit the best-seller list last year against all expectations.
"They struck a nerve. They dealt with the same problem - the sense that something is wrong with the American educational system."
When students think that Toronto is the capital of Italy, or study Latin because they want to travel in South America, something is wrong, Trefil said. "These are not isolated incidents. They are part of a larger problem," indicating that other major pieces of knowledge are missing.
The items on the list provide a matrix into which other information can be fitted. What a person can acquire depends heavily on what a person already knows, he said. The challenge came in writing down the current American matrix of knowledge.
Trefil, Hirsch and historian Joseph Kett each wrote lists, then got together on Friday afternoons to argue about those lists, he said. The items ultimately included are about what people are assumed to know. For instance, Anne Boleyn is included, but Charles V of Spain is not.
The list has attracted the most attention and debate, Trefil said.
People don't need to know everything about Napoleon, he said, but knowing he was a French general gives them a piece of the matrix into which other information can be fit.
Science literacy, he said, is worse than literacy in other areas.
"Education in science is so poor, we can't use the term `proton' without defining it. A political writer doesn't define the term `U.S. Senate' each time it is used. We need as good a background in the structure of the universe as in the structure of government."
In the end, he said, the book proposes a set of minimal goals for the American educational system.
"We've made no statement about how to achieve these goals. We're saying, teach how you want, but when you're done, this is what people are supposed to know. We're saying, learn this and you'll be okay."
While it may seem cheeky for three academicians at one university to decide what pieces of knowledge make an American capable of participating in political and societal debates, maybe the time had come for someone to do it, he suggests.
"When Samuel Johnson produced the first dictionary of the English language, he was criticized from pillar to post," Trefil said. "The American Heritage Dictionary of 1900 is different from the dictionary today. The list will change with time."