Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know

reviewed by Sonia Nieto - February 03, 2006

coverTitle: Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know
Author(s): Eugene F. Provenzo
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 159451089X, Pages: 154, Year: 2005
Search for book at

“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 Provenzo’s 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. Hirsch’s 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 Don’t 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 author’s analysis.  For Provenzo, because Hirsh is enmeshed in a web of conservative ideologies, he is a stand-in for—and a reflection of—a 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. Hirsch’s 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 Hirsch’s ideas.  Provenzo’s critique is wide-ranging, from an analysis of Hirsch’s “remarkable lack of self-reflection,” (p. 15) to what he characterizes as his sloppy scholarship in distorting Dewey’s 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.  Provenzo’s arguments are both persuasive and compelling.

The second part of the book is titled “What Literate Americans Ought to Know:  A Preliminary List.”  Provenzo’s list is, of course, a direct counterpoint to the much more traditional and Eurocentric list in Hirsch’s 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 Hirsch’s “needs to know” to underscore that his list represents a compilation of useful terms rather than an imposed, patronizing, and exclusionary knowledge, as is Hirsch’s.  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 [Hirsh’s] 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 Hirsch’s, 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 Provenzo’s 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 Provenzo’s 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 Hirsch’s work, although he never claims this is the case.

Provenzo makes no apology for his offensive against Hirsch’s 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 Hirsch’s 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 don’t have them. New York:  Doubleday.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 03, 2006 ID Number: 12316, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 5:09:08 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review