Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know
reviewed by Sonia Nieto - February 03, 2006
Education has been moving in strikingly conservative directions, writes Michael Apple in his foreword, and with this simple statement he sets the stage for Eugene Provenzos Cultural Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know, a slim volume that is honest, direct, provocative, and a direct confrontation to the strikingly conservative directions that currently have a firm grip on education.
Provenzo has taken it upon himself to respond directly to E. D. Hirschs writings, particularly to his widely popular, yet generally under-scrutinized, books, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Dont Have Them (1996). It might seem a bit late to be responding to these books, one of which is nearly two decades old, yet the messages they convey are even more influential today than they were when first written. Moreover, with several hundred schools modeled on the cultural literacy model promoted by Hirsch, as well as a thriving cottage industry of spin-offs sold at supermarkets, the timing might be fortuitous. It is also clear that E. D. Hirsch is not the only object of the authors analysis. For Provenzo, because Hirsh is enmeshed in a web of conservative ideologies, he is a stand-in forand a reflection ofa conservative movement that for the past 20 years has radically altered ideas about public education by focusing on standardization and testing, vouchers, charter schools, and other privatization schemes. Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know is thus an indictment not only of E. D. Hirschs ideas and programs, but also of the conservative movement in education in general.
The book is divided in two main parts. The first provides an overview and critique of Hirsch and his notions of cultural literacy, and the second is a compilation of 5,000 cultural terms that Provenzo describes as fundamental and basic for those wanting to be critically literate and engaged citizens. (p. 8). The first part is further divided into several short sections that focus on criticisms of Hirschs ideas. Provenzos critique is wide-ranging, from an analysis of Hirschs remarkable lack of self-reflection, (p. 15) to what he characterizes as his sloppy scholarship in distorting Deweys ideas, and his misappropriation of the ideas of Gramsci for his own purposes. At the same time, the author faults Hirsch for a limited and rigid understanding of cultural literacy that is ultimately impoverished, authoritarian, elitist, antidemocratic, and even un-American in that it excludes so much that is uniquely American. Provenzos arguments are both persuasive and compelling.
The second part of the book is titled What Literate Americans Ought to Know: A Preliminary List. Provenzos list is, of course, a direct counterpoint to the much more traditional and Eurocentric list in Hirschs book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. As Provenzo explains, he has chosen to use the term ought to know in his subtitle rather than Hirschs needs to know to underscore that his list represents a compilation of useful terms rather than an imposed, patronizing, and exclusionary knowledge, as is Hirschs. Provenzo is not opposed to a recognition of the significance of the western cultural tradition; but he objects to what he calls the essential arrogance of [Hirshs] construction of this vital tradition, his limited perspective, and his tendency to perpetuate models of patriarchy, domination, and exclusion (p. 6). Provenzo makes clear from the outset that his list, like Hirschs, is fraught with problems and limitations (p. 6) because no list is broad and generous enough to include all that every American ought to know. As a reader, probably like many others, I immediately checked to see what was included and what was left off his list. I was pleased to see African American and Arab American, but questioned why Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, or Latino did not make the list. I was happy to see Toni Morrison but wondered what happened to Pedro Pietri and the Nuyorican Poets Café? My list, I decided would look different from Eugene Provenzos list; and this is, in the final analysis, what he is trying to tell us: Making up lists of cultural literacy is a task of great futility.
The fact that we could all develop our own lists of cultural literacy is a conundrum and a challenge. Who says that Pedro Pietri should be on the list, or that someone else should not? While many of us might welcome a generally agreed-upon definition of the educated person, both Hirsch and Provenzo have shown that it is a complex project. It might, however, be worth pursuing if it became a more democratic process; and this is one of Provenzos greatest contributions. He understands cultural literacy like democracy, to be an active process rather than a fixed phenomenon. Unlike Hirsch, who presents his list as a canon of common knowledge, Provenzo has a different purpose with his: He wants it to serve as a starting point for dialogue, reflection, and exchange. His book is thus, he maintains, an ongoing political and cultural project (p. 5). The same is true, of course, of Hirschs work, although he never claims this is the case.
Provenzo makes no apology for his offensive against Hirschs ideas of cultural literacy. In fact, he states right up front that his is not a polite book. Rather, Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know is a robust defense of democracy, inclusiveness, and multiculturalism. Throughout his book, Provenzo poses a question based on a memorable question that Paulo Freire (1970) asked many years ago: Who benefits from Hirschs model of critical literacy? Clearly, Provenzo believes that only the privileged do and he aims to open up the dialogue so that others can benefit as well. This book is itself a democratic project: It talks back to Hirsch and to other conservative educators even if they themselves, insulated as they are from such criticisms, never invite a talking back to, or even a dialogue. Yet in our increasingly complex, multicultural, and globalized world, dialogue and reflection is precisely what is needed. Near the end of the first part of the book, Provenzo writes words that are both achingly accurate and prescient: Our diversity, he writes, is our curse and challenge as a people, our blessing and our future (p. 68). In his book, Provenzo provides a more hopeful and more democratic way to face this future.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Hirsch, E. D. (1996). The schools we need and why we dont have them. New York: Doubleday.