Sometimes the worst part of being sick is going to visit the doctor, but my recent visit was a lesson in cultural literacy.
This kind of literacy is part of the point being made by National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne V. Cheney who surveyed 8,000 17-year-olds and found that 68 percent did not know when the U.S. Civil war took place. It is the point made in "Cultural Literacy" by E.D. Hirsch and in "The Closing of the American Mind" by Allan Bloom. A colleague said of the last book, "I haven't read it and I don't intend to."The first problem with the visit to the doctor was not a cultural literacy problem. But it was there, among the old magazines in the waiting room, that I discovered it.
The Time I found on the recent visit to a Salt Lake doctor had Bill Cosby's picture on the cover and a date of Sept. 28, 1987. The cover story was about the Cos and another article forecast a Reagan - Gorbachev summit. Judge Bork was being quizzed by Sen. Biden, who was in trouble for plagiarism. The Biden article caught my eye because of my attitude about plagiarism as part of the education community. The sign on a colleague's door at Snow College reads "College English Department - Plagiarism Not Allowed - Please Derive Carefully."
Remember Biden? He was the presidential candidate who took words from British Labor Leader Neil Kinnock and didn't give credit where credit was due. He was accused of lifting others' words in campaign speeches and in past college writing assignments.
The Time article was titled "Biden's Familiar Quotations." The lead was, "It should have been the best of times, but it was the worst of times for Joseph Biden."
A literate person should have no trouble translating the symbols on the page of Time and understanding the title and the first sentence. One who is culturally literate, however, would find additional meaning in the same words. The culturally literate would know that the title of the article was an allusion to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. The first collection was printed in 1855, over a century ago. The culturally literate would recognize the first sentence of the article as a reference to Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and would enjoy the article on a different level that the reader who was only reading literate.
I began to deface the doctor's magazine by underlining other cultural allusions. "But the candidate still insists that the whole flap is `much ado about nothing'. . . Why then, has Biden become a modern-day Jean Valjean condemned to suffer permanently for the political equivalent of stealing a loaf of bread?"
The time in the waiting room was long enough that I felt I had to explain to the doctor why her magazine was all marked up. It also seemed only right that I ask before taking it with me. She got the idea and began to circle those allusions I had missed because of the short wait: "His Eyes Have Seen the Glory" in the piece about Pat Robertson, "slime by any other name" in a First Amendment story, "All the Party Chief's Men" in the article on Yugoslavia, "Blood, Sweat and Fears" titled the Economy news, and an untitled picture of William Shakespeare on the public service advertisement by Ogilvy & Mather. The culturally literate could enjoy this issue. The reading literate could only read it.
Life is richer for the culturally literate and a primary goal of education should be to pass to the next generation the culture along with the skills.
-Roger G. Baker is an associate professor of English/education at Snow College.