Think you're culturally literate? Well, think again

September 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Anne Frank is out, Sandra Day O'Connor is in.

The Battle of Midway is out, Tiananmen Square is in.

The Iron Curtain is still in, but it has relocated -- out of the World Politics section, into World History.

Five years have passed since three Virginia academics compiled "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," 600 pages of what they thought every American should know. Nelson Mandela is out of prison now, and the Soviet Union is out of business. Bill Clinton has become president, and Burma has become Myanmar.

"Cultural literacy is dynamic. It changes," says co-author James Trefil, a physics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

So the dictionary has changed, too. The second edition emerges this week with 227 additions, 116 deletions and endless new fodder for arguments.

How can baby doctor Benjamin Spock be out? How can 19th-century mental health reformer Dorothea Dix be in?

"Some of this," Mr. Trefil admits, "is just a chance to make up for mistakes. People write and say, 'You didn't include this, you idiot,' and we say, 'Jeez, you're right.' "

But most of it is simply their attempt to reflect what qualifies as general usage in the United States. The second edition is far heavier on minority culture than the first. It's not a matter of political correctness, Mr. Trefil says; it's that "more minority culture is in the general culture now."

Schools are teaching about Paul Laurence Dunbar, the foremost black American poet before Langston Hughes. Most people recognize that AME means the African Methodist Episcopal church.

"The real definition of cultural literacy is that this is what other people assume you know and don't tell you about," Mr. Trefil says. "If you see an article in the paper today about the U.S. Senate, there's nothing that tells the reader what the Senate is. That's cultural literacy."

The concept was debated as much as the content when E. D. Hirsch, Joseph Kent and Mr. Trefil wrote "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" in 1987.

Their book included a 63-page list of essentials that grew into the first edition of the cultural dictionary the next year. It defied the theory that the ability to find knowledge is more important than having it. Critics howled that memorization does not confer competence.

There remains no consensus, but Mr. Trefil has seen his argument edging into the mainstream. The books "focused the debate," he says. "People began producing their own lists. They'd say: 'Hey, you left this out. Hey, you left that out.'

"Once they start talking that way, you've made your point: There are some things everybody ought to know. They're just arguing about what it is."

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