No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate



 I was watching the MLB channel this morning, and the hosts were discussing the Milwaukee Brewers and their general manager’s statement that the team would “keep its powder dry” until the mid-season trading deadline. All three hosts professed to have no idea whatsoever what the phrase about keeping powder dry meant. In his 1988 book “Cultural Literacy,” E.D.Hirsch, Jr., argued that children in the United States are not learning the basic knowledge that they need to function competently in society. the background information about world, Western and U.S. culture that literate writers and speakers assume their audience already has. The three MLB hosts were all schooled since 1988, and clearly, the problem has only gotten worse.

The phrase at issue is a useful and formerly famous one. It comes from a reported quote from Oliver Cromwell—Teddy Roosevelt wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell. I bet fewer than one out of a thousand Americans could tell you who he was—during the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Cromwell supposedly told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English Civil War, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” The last part of the quote is usually evoked to mean “keep cool,” but the entire quote is more profound. As the late language maven William Safire wrote in the New York Times, it means ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ”and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.” Prayer is great, but the Lord helps those who help themselves. Or, as a World War II slogan had it, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” This was made into a popular wartime song by Frank Loesser, who wrote “Guys and Dolls.” I know: what’s “Guys and Dolls”? What’s “World War II?”

This morning’s depression reminded me of an essay by Patrick Deneen from 2016, titled “How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture.” He wrote in part,

…It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publicly). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural?  What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present….Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others… E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success…

…Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps…

And we wonder why the Parkland students don’t understand the Second Amendment…

(I confess, I had to look up “deracinated…”)

57 thoughts on “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate

  1. I always took the quote ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” always meant personal responsibility to me, that outside intervention isn’t going to be there to save you if you screw up from incompetence.

    I can see how people can get a “cool heads will prevail” idea from it though.

  2. Culturally illiterate is actually one step behind. At this point students are being taught to hate history, especially European history, and, essentially that the world worth knowing started in 2008, when a formerly benighted and evil nation finally came to its senses and elected the greatest president of all. Everything that came before that was racist, sexist, fascist, and not worth knowing, so erase it, forget it, topple it from its pedestal and consign it to the flames. Forget the Greeks, forget Columbus and forget Washington, the history worth knowing is Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Hogg.

    • Yeah, that is all neo-Marxist bullshit. This idea that there are oppressors and oppressed, and the west are the oppressors. These ideas totally ignore the fact that it is the west that is the most egalitarian of societies, the west that is responsible for lifting more people than ever before out of abject poverty, the culture that actually outlawed slavery, and gave women and minorities the right to vote. It is the west that has the ideas of blind justice, individualism vs. group identity and subordination. We may not always live up to our ideas (in fact we never do), but lets take a quick look at what other ideas and concepts are on display in the rest of the world.

      • Of course it’s neo-Marxist bs. The red diaper babies born, as often as not illegitimately, to the 1960s tuned-out, turned-on dropouts have long since inherited their parents’ tie-dyed mantles, and are still rallying around some of the same ivory tower tyrants of that time like Noam Chomsky. Their ideas didn’t work then and they won’t work now, we saw them come all too close to fruition with Obama’s attempt to reduce this nation to a third-class power studded with cities that didn’t dare try to govern themselves.

        The West may have written the Constitution and the Magna Carta, and abolished slavery, and built the greatest empires and powers the world has ever seen, but the left does not see its achievements, it sees only its failures. Chinese culture castrated civil servants with one sweep of the knife and bound young girls’ feet to make them unnaturally tiny, Indian culture strictly separated castes, pronounced certain people “untouchable” and burned widows on their husband’s funeral pyres, and American Indians carved missionaries up a piece at a time in the north and cut hearts out regularly in the south, but the left doesn’t see any of this. The left sees only that these people were later oppressed by the racist and evil and greedy west. So they go a step beyond saying things are never that simple and recast Clive and Columbus as genocides, Washington and Jefferson as slave-owners only, and you know the rest.

        We talk about the red pill and the blue pill, but I’d characterize this thinking as the pink pill and the green pill. The pink pill is victimhood, and any culture that takes it is forever immunized from criticism, no matter what wrongs or errors it may commit. The green pill is a poison pill, composed of racism, oppression, and failure to live up to high ideals, and any culture that takes it, no matter the context, is then poisoned in all aspects. It doesn’t matter what a green pill culture society achieves, it is and everyone and everything associated with it are forever tainted, unworthy, and subject to removal.

        • But you only allow binary categories in what you write. There are those who appreciate the attainments of the West, and of America, and there are red diaper babies’ who are Marxists and Communists. This is a false dichotomy.

          The Constitution, the Magna Charta, the movement in ideas that led to a will to abolish slavery: it required minds like that of Chomsky (and his analogues) to forge the ideas and the will that are seen in the progresses you name.

          I also think you are quite wrong in your opinions about what you term as ‘racism’. When you use this term you are, again, using a preestablished term that really does not have a defined meaning. ‘Racism’ can be said to arise only when two unalike people (or various unalike peoples) are forced into proximity. You imply that if there is racial conflict, which is always more than just ‘race’ and has to do with a whole range of differences) it is the moral fault of those who react against the forces that mix them together.

          For example in London today. English people do not feel they have ownership of their city. And many British feel they are losing ‘their country’ to waves of Eastern and African immigration. And if they take an issue with that, they are morally culpable? That is not true. In the sociaological politics of Sweden, another example, the country is standing on the edge of a dramatic shift because of what I suppose you would see as the non-racist polcies of certain liberalist factions that have political control. And the people who feel that they are losing their country, their identity, and the very definition of what it means to ‘be Swesih’ are, in your eyes, racists?

          My argument against some of your positions is that you deal is simplified binaries. The issues are more complex — far more complex. And the ethics of the problems have to be carefully thought through. But within the simplistic binaries you present (especially what you have said about a Green Pill) there is no conversation allowed.

          I have read a great deal of Chomsky’s writing and there is no doubt in my mind that he is an important — and relevant — political philosopher. His essential analysis is about ‘power and how power functions’. And it is vital in any sort of society, and especially one that stands against tyrrany, to clearly understand power and how it functions. I would say that that should be a civic requirement.

          Yet *you* (and some people who write in similar vein) do not seem to be able to turn around to look at the ‘power-systems’ that determine economy, culture and power-dynamics in your own country. So, there is a whol dynamic that you can’t or won’t take into consideration. Therefor, you cannot really have an intellectual and critical position, just a defensive one, but it is a simplistic defense.

          • Chomsky is a linguist and lifelong academic with a big mouth, who long ago entered intellectual menopause. Anyone who gives his drivel any credibility is at best wasting her time, at worst is a fool. I am more inclined to say you are the former, because you have shown yourself NOT to be stupid or foolish.

            I think you are seeing what I said about simple binaries, but you’re seeing it backwards. I’m keeping it simple because the left won’t allow it to be other than simple: either you agree with them or you’re a hater of some kind.

            • Hold on! Take a look no only at what you are saying but the way you are saying it. You are making what I call ‘coercive statements’. Either I am (or have) a) wasted my time or b) am a fool. Is there no other option?

              There is a story about a renowned cook who has 3 candidates for his dishes in the kitchen with him: a goose a duck and a chicken.

              “Listen up my pretties for I have important news as to how you will be cooked!”

              The fowls listen — very attentively as you’d expect — to the details of how they will be slaughtered, plucked, cooked and served. They look nervously and somewhat shyly at each other and they say to the cook:

              “Dearest and Most Respected Sir! As much as we appreciate your artistry and what you intend to make of us, we cannot but object to your entire project in the most strenuous terms! We simply must inform you that we have no interest in participating!”

              As you may well guess, I take issue with your nomenclature and am somewhat certain that I object to being ‘cooked’ according to that recipe.


              I think Chomsky is a communist. His own term for what he is is ‘anarcho-sydicalist’ which if you look it up is a disguised term for communist. So, he can definitely be critiqued for that (if indeed he is a communist).

              But I think he does a very good job at analysing ‘power and how power functions’. And that particular analysis does not have to support a communist, a socialist, or any sort of politics. As I think I have said before Machiavelli also brings out an analysis of power. The Prince is raw in that sense, The Discourses much more nuanced. But the analysis is essentially sound.

              I understand that there is a great deal of reaction to what the progressive left is doing. I also understand that some (perhaps you?) see the reaction to that as being directly tied to it. So, the Alt-Right (to use the vulgar an improper term) comes on the scene because of the progressive hyper-left. That analysis, IMO, is too simplistic. (But not valueless).

              • I said at best and at worst, so there’s a spectrum rather than only two choices. If you believe that there is in fact some value in Chomsky’s writings, then that is your opinion. It’s an opinion I don’t happen to share, but it is your opinion. It’s not my intention to cook anyone, least of all you, who, though you may seem a little odd at times, I have some affection for.

                • Really, everyone around here is a little sTrAnGe, you have to admit! I blame it on my mother’s Sefardi Hallacas….

                  Allow me to explain a bit more why I feel Chomsky’s analysis is important. In any case why he is not to be simply dismissed without consideration.

                  Chomsky provides a lens through which to view ‘power, and how power functions’. Like Machiavelli in The Prince. But instead of Machiavelli as advisor instructing the ruler how to hold power through sophistical ploy, it is as though Chomsky is instructing the duped people how to view the power-system in which they live (or live under as the case may be). Chomsky is unremitting in his focus on American power and, as you know (by anecdote or had you read him?), he is thoroughly critical. The origin of his oppositional stance took form in opposition to the Vietnam invasion and occupation. He regarded that war as thoroughly immoral and indefensible.

                  But though Chomsky is critical of American power, which he criticizes because he is an American citizen, he does point out that all governing structures, in collusion with the reigning elites, are systems for management of populations. Therefor, his critical position and the critical lens he uses is applicable to any structure of power.

                  If you were, let us say, making an analysis of the Cuban power-system, or the North Korean, or any other power system but especially any that you disapprove of (and rationally critique), I think you would have no issue applying the ‘model’ Chomsky offers and uses. You would notice that a regime uses force and often deception to deceive the population through use of propaganda to keep the population under control. You would have no problem and no hesitation seeing how the system works, criticizing it, and instructing other people how to see it for what it is.

                  But this is where — and you clearly see where I am going — you and people like you do not seem to be able to *see yourselves*. It is really quite simple. Something inhibits *you* (*you* refers to a general plurality) from ‘turning the analytical lens around and seeing yourselves’. You make all sorts of excuses for yourself and, oddly, you identify your own self with a governmental and military-industrial ‘self’ which, in fact, you are (most likely) not a part of and may not even have any ownership interest in. In my lexicon of terms I use ‘complicity’ to describe what I see as a mechanism. If I criticize power-systems — of the US — and if I attempt to point out that they may not be ‘constitutional’ or may have usurped power through devious machinations, *you* take it as if I am attacking *you* at a personal level.

                  But I assert that it is vital, proper, good and necessary that every citizen be capable of making a clear, direct, unbiased study of the ‘power-systems’ of his or her own country. If we are really to take political ethics seriously, and if our declarations about ‘ethics’ and other high-sounding terms are not to be merely hypocritical deceptions, I do not think that you or anyone else could counter what I am saying is necessary. If you did it would be through employing sophistries. You would then become ‘complicit’ in deceptions and lying.

                  There is a very important issue at stake here. It is the capacity to see clearly and describe things accurately and truthfully. You must certainly agree that it is good and necessary to educate children to be capable of seeing and describing reality truthfully. But you must also recognize that corrupt governments and corrupted regimes always attack the forms of education that create free-thinking children. And you also know, quite well, where I am going with this: the educational system of the US is recognized by all to have serious flaws. More: to create children who are incapable of the kind of thinking necessary to maintain a ‘free republic’. Down below there is a video posted of an old news program where you can see the mindless creatures who do not have any sense at all ‘where they are located’. (They cannot cite very common historical dates and such but I assert that they are far more “lost” than just in that: they are metaphysically adrift and cannot ‘locate’ themselves in this reality, that is, the manifested world, the world of Being).

                  What has acted to corrupt children, undermine education in those classical traditions and categories that have allowed the Occident to become powerful, and certainly in English-derived cultures? Some will say ‘It’s the Bolsheviks!’ or the Cultural Marxists. If you follow people like Robert Bork it is the ‘hippes’. There is no end of opinion about what the sources of corruption are, and no end to opinion about what is needed to restore things. Yet what I notice is that everyone seems to be in the dark. No matter what they think and say, things just continue in decline week by week, year by year, decade by decade.

                  Back to looking at ‘power-systems’. I maintain that what has happened in America and to America is elaborate, complex, but entirely systemic. That is, the corruption arises from within its own self. And I have written extensively about how I think this has come about. And as you well know I say it is because the Republic has been infiltrated by interests and powers that subvert it and that, as far as I can tell, these are intimately and perversely connected with its industrial and military sectors. Therefor, to maintain appearances about America as a great and upstanding country (this is not a lie by the way) and about all the ‘good’ America is doing (this also is not a lie), the Establishment is forced to create lies and deceptions about many things it does. And with this ‘the power-system’ reveals that in certain senses that can be named its actions and activities (machinations) are inimical to the good of the Republic.

                  My analysis is not a communistic analysis. It is not a Marxist analysis. It is a simple, common-sense analysis about ‘systems of power’ and how those systems of power function.

                  Therefor, I suggest that the analytical lens that Chomsky uses is more or less simply a ‘way of looking at things’ that can be used by anyone who examines the dynamics of power. The implications, in my view, are alarming. I will provide what I think is a clear example: Israel.

                  Those of us brought up in Judaism were taught to see Israel as ‘the light on the hill’ and all that. But allow me to ‘cut to the chase’ as the saying goes. If anyone really does have two eyes in their head, and if anyone is capable of seeing and describing reality as it really is, they cannot but see the recent ‘return’ of the Jews as what it is: an invasion and an occupation. But let’s not get hung up here, lets’ just talk about ‘power, and how power functions’. Power does what it does, for all the reasons that it does what it does, and in this case it was to gain a country. Power acts, but power cannot — at least today — simply tell the truth: “We have decided to return to a country that we abandoned or were exiled from 1900 years ago and we will invade and occupy that land, kill of, displace and remove its inhabitants, and use every sophistical trick in order to get what it is we want and need.”

                  There you have a truthful statement about power. Or about reality.

                  Now, my quandary had been that I *see* things in the light of truth (to the degree that I imagine myself capable), and thus I was forced to defend the raw use of power when it came to Israel and its horrid and terrifying (and on-going) founding. I saw no alternative. If I am to defend Israel, I have to become complicit in its lies. And ‘complicity’ is addictive. Once you become complicit, and of course especially when you have ‘ownership interest’ (the fuel of complicity!) there is no end to your sinking into ‘structures of lies’.

                  Now, supposedly I am some sort of ‘Nazi’ and fascist because of certain things I think and believe. Yet in order to be a true Nazi and fascist, a real and practicing one, I would have to be so committed to Power that I would privelage ‘power, and what power does’ over clear seeing about ‘how power functions’. I would have to be, by definition, totally complicit in a series of lies, in a web of lies, that in the end I would deceive myself at a foundational level.

                  And this is what essentially interests me: how people become ‘complicit’ in their views, their interpretations, their self-defenses, their patriotism, and so many other things. We suppose that if we dedicate ourselves to ‘truth’ and even to ‘justice’ (retruning now to the reference to Thracymachus) that we will become better people, will live in truth, and will improve our world. We *sell* this a s a value to be lived, and taught. But there is a curious truth and it is that you often come out better — materially — by turning off the analytical and critical mind and ‘going with the flow of things’.

                  I suggest that today, in various sectors of the world, certainly and importantly in Europe, people are thinking critically about ‘power and how power functions’, and they are examining a) their own systems, b) the larger system of Americanism, and c) the entire question of ‘complicity’, and d) all this in the context of a new question: How can I see and describe the reality I live in accurately?

  3. Lincoln’s third Inaugural? He threw in a red herring!

    I was not taught much on this list… and had to learn it on my own.

    Could this be a product of the ‘college is for everybody’ movement? A classical education takes years, and the money to stay in school for ‘useless’ information that mostly won’t help in any job. (Come to think of it, my Differential Equations course was useless information that never helped in any job I ever took… but I digress)

    How many American citizens circa 1850 knew Greek references? Or who fought in 2,000 year old wars? The rich upper class did, no doubt, but the average income American?

    Putting the masses through school killed the classes that included such information, in my opinion. You just cannot afford to have the number of children in school and leave them there long enough to get this.

    • I think this is a good point, slick. The average Ivy League student today probably knows less about Ancient Greece than the average Ivy League student in 1850. But on the other hand, the average Ivy League student today certainly knows a lot more about other topics than the average Ivy League student in 1850, and the average college-aged American certainly knows a lot more about history than the average American of the same age in 1850.

      Which is to say I don’t think “cultural illiteracy” is a new phenomenon, or that there is any evidence that it’s worse now than it ever was.

      • ” the average college-aged American certainly knows a lot more about history than the average American of the same age in 1850″

        There is no question in my mind that this statement isn’t just untrue, but wildly untrue, unless you are talking about history since 1850.

        I asked a lawyer colleague, a Columbia law school grad, to give me the dates of the Civil War. No clue. She guessed 1940. I dated a woman, smart, a college grad and executive, who had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. Examples are legion.

        Heck, there are even people who say that Hillary was one of the best qualified candidates ever, believe it or not…

        • Those examples don’t prove your point, Jack; they aren’t even evidence, because you aren’t comparing them to anything. I think you are drastically overestimating the education of the average American prior to 1850. Most people didn’t even receive formal schooling at that time. We were largely an agrarian society; you learned what you needed to learn to take over daddy’s business or to get a job in town. Women and blacks were especially undereducated. If you have any basis for the idea that people were better educated back then, I think you need to show evidence for that that doesn’t really on the 1% of Americans who attended schools that taught them Latin.

          • I cite them as typical of my observations and experience. My observations and experience reading the works, speeches and writings of 19th century figures suggests that Americans were generally historically informed, certainly more so than now. Of course, you have to mix in illiteracy— It’s impossible to prove, one way or the other. It’s also a deflection by you. Even conceding your point, which I don’t, that doesn’t argue for regarding the current level of historical ignorance as desirable, wise or healthy.

            • I never suggested that the current level of historical ignorance is desirable, wise, or healthy, so my argument was not a deflection at all. I took issue with your point that historical illiteracy is worse now than it was in the past, and I gave good reasons why. Your comment about illiteracy is basically a concession on that point. I really don’t appreciate when you make up arguments and then attribute them to me—you’ve been doing that a lot lately.

              • It’s not a concession. It is part of the apples and guavas nature of your deflection. Educated Americans were a smaller percentage of the population, but the post is talking about educated Americans, obviously. I would also bet that uneducated, illiterate American in 1850 were still better informed than a lot of high school grads today, but that was not my point.

                An educated American in 1850 read more, and knew their history far better. You draw people into arguments with misleading perameters, then use those false perameters for “gotchas.”

                • It’s not a concession. It is part of the apples and guavas nature of your deflection. Educated Americans were a smaller percentage of the population, but the post is talking about educated Americans, obviously.

                  I don’t think that was obvious. The quoted portion, sure, but before that it seemed like you were talking about American society as a whole.

                  I would also bet that uneducated, illiterate American in 1850 were still better informed than a lot of high school grads today, but that was not my point.

                  That just makes no sense. Without literacy a great deal of information flow is cut off.

                  An educated American in 1850 read more, and knew their history far better.

                  Yes, but there were much fewer of them. There is a natural trade-off when educating the masses–there is less time and resources to do so. I don’t see any proposed solutions here, or any recognition of how this loss of cultural literacy (if there has been any real loss–it seems to me that most people, now and then, know what they need to know in order to survive) has happened. So it’s just get-off-my-lawnism, not real analysis.

                  You draw people into arguments with misleading perameters, then use those false perameters for “gotchas.”

                  I don’t think that’s fair. I’ve explained why I don’t find your argument convincing.

        • Actually a lawyer I had a case with, whose husband was a naval officer who should have set her straight, spouted exactly that “most qualified candidate ever” nonsense, only to have me sharply tell her that Hillary’s long tenure in the public eye was exactly what made me decide NOT to vote for her – I’d had plenty of time to see her, and I didn’t like what I saw. My sister in law has frequently said that history was worthless outside of playing Trivial Pursuit. I was introduced to a woman who had never heard of the Battle of Trenton despite growing up in the same county. A coworker fed me the newest line about Columbus being a POS before I told him I was half Italian, so he should stop there if he knew what was good for him. Many of my coworkers, all black of course, still praise Obama as the messiah who wasn’t allowed to fully save this nation by people like me. The world is full of idiots who choose to be idiots.

          • So you believe that basing one’s judgment of important historical individuals on identity politics is OK for Italians but wrong for blacks?

  4. Fewer than 1 in 1000? I disagree. There are a ton of Irish-Americans and Oliver continues to be an unpopular name among them.

      • Rest assured, Jack, the vast majority of Irish Americans remain in touch with our cultural heritage, and we know. We know Cromwell, we know Father Murphy, we know Wolfe Tone, we know Roger Casement, we know Pearse, Connolly, and The O’Ralihy, and we know The Big Fella himself, Michael Collins. What’s more we’ve all heard of Bloody Sunday and Bobby Sands.

        Frankly I consider Cromwell to be one of the 30 greatest villains of history. He was a religious bigot, a brutal tactician, and an early pattern for the modern military strongman. I have some sympathy for the rebels who tried to fight fair, and a little for the 1916 Easter Rising people, though I’d have a lot more if they hadn’t essentially tried to stab the British in the back as they battled a greater menace. I have slight sympathy for Roger Casement, a misguided idealist who tried to make a deal with worse tyrants than the UK and betrayed the oath he took as a member of the civil service. On the whole I consider Michael Collins to be a net negative ethically, due to his use of early terrorist tactics. I have none for the later IRA people, who I consider nothing more than gangsters.

        For this some call me a traitor to my own people. In some way the Irish Nationalists are white jihadists with a different accent.

          • Look up, Alizia. Beeeeep! (Presses Alizia’s nose). I have heard that song sung six ways to Sunday, and it is a staple of Celtic concerts, although a certain hot foursome from the Emerald Isle have yet to cover it.

            • It is a nice song. But Gaughn’s politics might correspond to what you say of ‘later IRA people’. He did not have a favorable view of Christianity, that’s for sure! []

              • The song was actually written by folk singer-songwriter Phil Colclough and his now sadly departed wife June, inspired by a vacation on the Dingle peninsula. Ironically Phil isn’t even Irish, he’s English. Also ironically, Dick isn’t Irish either, he’s Scottish. That it was covered by someone whose politics might be a bit radical is of no moment, it was also covered by operatic tenor Ronan Tynan, a personal friend of GWB and huge supporter of the US military, Canadian balladeer John McDermott, also a huge US and Commonwealth veteran supporter, as well as the decidedly more traditional Irish entertainers Tommy Fleming and Mary Black. Unfortunately the ladies of Celtic Woman, my favorite Irish act, have yet to do a version of it.

  5. I admit I don’t have the full answers for all these, and I consider myself moderately culturally literate and know general answers. But I have met so many who are ‘done’ with their education who know nothing from that list. They know so little they don’t even realize how little they know that they should.

    When too many leading society figures decided that the existing culture needed to be not only changed like the 60s, but rooted out and erased, that was a bellweather. Hero became a four letter word and mocked or corrupted. Why teach or learn history, it only shows worthless facts, and we need those braincells to track celebs.

    At some point the educators didn’t understand that history is not really what and why things happened, but that the meaning and lessons for today and our struggles are littered in past events. When educators lost this, parents never got it, and children saw no reason to memorize stuff about wrong-headed slavers from Virginia, late Victorian rampant materialism, or Sun kings. Some stubborn souls may teach themselves, but they only buck the trend. People here are rebels, all. Take a cultural hero to lunch and stop feeding the self-important masses a little. People without a history, without understanding their own culture, are more rootless than refugees they want to support. They don’t really understand why illegal immigrants want that culture so badly.

    The hero’s journey is personal, to make leaders. Life cannot be lived by group think and surveys. Leaders need a compass.

  6. Magna Carta is important because it standardized weights and measures. That is why an inch is three barleycorns laid end to end ;’)

    Unfortunately, we have had an entire generation educated by people who hate Western Civilization and the United States. When I got to college, many of my professors were nearing retirement and had been teaching the same way since the 50’s or 60’s. Only then did I realize how biased and anti-American my previous teachers had been. It was easy to see it in the difference between the older professors and the new ones. I bought old history books and they opened my eyes to how history had been perverted to make me hate my own country, to hate democracy, to hate liberty. I see that perversion today in a group of clueless high school students who last week reveled in the spotlight demanding ‘change’ to make them safer and this week are protesting the clear backpacks and metal detectors they have to use at their schools.

    Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who don’t learn the lessons of liberty are doomed to lose it.

  7. “Keep your powder dry” would seem to be pretty obvious without the direct cultural knowledge of the origins.

    I would have instantly interpreted it this way:

    Powder is gunpowder – gunpowder is used to cause an explosion. Trades and player moves can be explosive. You can’t use gunpowder if it’s wet and untended. Ergo – they’ll stay prepared and have the resources available to make an “explosive” trade. (Micro explosion or otherwise.)

    Was that too hard (or far from the mark)?


      The above comment used dangerous and possibly illegal methods to arrive at a conclusion. Critical thinking, logic and common sense have been determined by the State of California and other states to be racist, sexist, and -phobic. Please seek the nearest safe room and/or box of colors should you exhibit signs of being triggered.


  8. Oliver Cromwell – one of my least favourite historical leaders.

    But he did say something good, worthwhile, and profound, when dealing with a group of stiff necked, bigoted, religious fanatics even more stiff necked, bigoted, and religiously fanatic than he himself was, and that was a really high bar.

    “I am persuaded that divers of you, who lead the People, have laboured to build yourselves in these things; wherein you have censured others, and established yourselves “upon the Word of God.” Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. Precept may be upon precept, line may be upon line, and yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a Word of Judgment; that they may fall backward and be broken, and be snared and be taken! There may be a spiritual fulness, which the World may call drunkenness; as in the second Chapter of the Acts. There may be, as well, a carnal confidence upon misunderstood and misapplied precepts, which may be called spiritual drunkenness. There may be a Covenant made with Death and Hell! I will not say yours was so. But judge if such things have a politic aim: To avoid the overflowing scourge; or, To accomplish worldly interests? And if therein we have confederated with wicked and carnal men, and have respect for them, or otherwise ‘have drawn them in to associate with us, Whether this be a Covenant of God, and spiritual? Bethink yourselves; we hope we do. “

  9. As one of those useless public school teachers so often ranted about in this space, I want to rise to the occasion here and, if not defend our profession, at least offer my take on things over my 31 years in the business.

    I was a fairly new teacher when Hirsch’s book came out. I thought then that it was a silly tome, written from the perspective of a grumpy old man. I still don’t hold much respect for it, though I have become a grumpy old man myself. Who gets to decide what’s important cultural literacy? (Yes, I am about to say something like “it’s always been old white guys…”) I wonder if someone else had written that book if it would have contained different things?

    But since 1988 several things have happened to make teaching these important things virtually impossible, the internet and standardized testing being two major ones. Yes, I know that standardized testing has been around for many decades; I remember taking the MEAP (Michigan’s state test) when I was a small boy in the 70s. But in the 70s test scores were not blasted across the front pages of newspapers everywhere, and politicians were not decrying our “failing public schools” and telling everyone that privatization and profits would be a much better plan for education.

    The pressure on schools, teachers, and students to “succeed” on these tests is ridiculous, and it has gotten to the point that if it can’t be measured, we don’t have time to teach it. And everything is measured. As a music teacher I am happy to have a job any more; much of my curriculum isn’t “measurable” to a certain extent, and it certainly isn’t required for success in life. But I digress… Believe me, if Cromwell was going to be on the ACT, SAT, or AP History exams, you can bet he’d be talked about in schools. It’s all about competition, and everyone is fearing for jobs, funding, and students as we move to a market-based system of educating our next generations, and the members of that generation all want to get a 7.0 GPA and get into Harvard (starting as freshmen with 75 credits due to all of their AP test scores), and the way to do it is to excel on those tests. It’s fairly terrifying.

    What does the internet have to do with all of this? Maybe less than I think, but I put it in my opening statement, so I better defend what I wrote. The explosion of information readily available at our fingertips over the last 20 years has made it more difficult to choose what topics we really value and should teach in schools. What are we supposed to pick among all of the important historical facts and figures? What has changed about some of those facts and figures that needs to be taken into account as we decide if they’re important? (This would be where the “those liberal teachers all hate white Europeans, so they would eliminate all of that history” argument would come in.)

    Please also remember that we as teachers have virtually ZERO CONTROL over our curriculum. Even if we are allowed or encouraged to participate in selection of textbooks, those textbooks have been compiled not by teachers who have a stake in the success of the delivery of their content, but by panels of people controlled or influenced by profits, politics, and policy. If Texas doesn’t like a history book, it doesn’t get published. And the schools won’t allow us to branch out and teach our own content, because it might not be on the test, so that idea is out.

    I also lament the loss of some of our old treasures. Last week I told my clarinet section that they sounded like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and not only did they not get the reference, they couldn’t figure out why said cat would have a problem… After 31 years I will retire this spring, and I can tell you that the last 5-10 years have been the ones that have been the most difficult to reach kids. Things have changed; some for the better, some for the worse, but it’s definitely a different world in education than it was when I started, and I don’t know what I would do if I had 10 more years to go.

  10. I’m not sure that I agree.

    The capacity of an individual to learn is finite…. My parents decided that it was best that my youngest sister went to a French immersion school and be fully bilingual. It wasn’t a bad idea, it opens a whole lot of doors, especially in the public sector, but they were absolutely horrified that the school, probably the most prestigious in town, didn’t teach cursive writing.

    But really…. Why would they? No one writes anything…. Everything is typed, and sure enough, they had a whole slew of typing courses. Why devote the time and energy to teach young minds a skill they will literally never have to use? Cursive writing is obsolete.

    You used the term “cultural illiteracy”, but that’s not really true unless you believe that the phrase “keep your powder dry” is culturally relevant. I don’t think it was even when it was said. 100 years later, You’re talking about obscure historical trivia. Really, there are so many things that are both historically important and culturally relevant that I’d want someone to take the time to learn before this… Say… What the enumerated rights are, why they were, the rulings around them and how they interact with society today…. Actually invoking Cromwell as a symptom of cultural illiteracy hits me as hopelessly elitist.

    • You teach to the upper third, and the middle and lower third need to keep up. I do agree that cursive writing is now obsolete, but it wasn’t when I went to school and there were almost no personal computers. Half of me kind of resents it, because it was something I was never very good at, partly due to my Asperger’s. Of course because that wasn’t even a diagnosis then, the teachers assumed I must be lazy or not trying hard enough, or just a screwup.

  11. Keith Walker wrote: ”Please also remember that we as teachers have virtually ZERO CONTROL over our curriculum. Even if we are allowed or encouraged to participate in selection of textbooks, those textbooks have been compiled not by teachers who have a stake in the success of the delivery of their content, but by panels of people controlled or influenced by profits, politics, and policy. If Texas doesn’t like a history book, it doesn’t get published. And the schools won’t allow us to branch out and teach our own content, because it might not be on the test, so that idea is out.”

    Largely as a result of participation in this blog and reading what people write and think as they discuss ‘the present’ and what the present means, I have come to have a critical position of what I refer, somewhat acidically, as Americanism and the Americanopolis. That term Americanopolis I got from Pierre Krebs, a modern German critic of ‘liberal rot’.

    A florid, somewhat romantic writer, he nevertheless makes many good points of the type that many Americans don’t want to hear about this ‘Americanism’ and the spreading ‘Americanopolis’. Another writer, generally place on the ‘far right’ is Guillaume Faye who describes this Americanism and thus The Americanopolis as an adversary but not an enemy. Even Richard Weaver who is one of the ‘fathers’ of American conservatism noted right around the time of WWll that America did not really represent ideals but rather a sort of cultural mass that was narcissistic and nihilistic and pleasure-centered. It had incredible power and the tools to influence and mold culture but it did not really represent a core value-set. (That is how the argument goes and I think there is a good deal of sense to it).

    Richard Weaver, of course, had a profound philosophical orientation and went so far as to locate a point within Occidental ideation where things took a wrong turn (and it was many centuries ago with ‘nominalism’).

    What is the message? I struggle to put it into words. But I begin to think that it has to do with essential questions of metaphysics. And yet I know how tiresome it must be to hear that word repeated again and again. When the way that our reality is described changes, or when a new ideological force engineers a shift in core metaphysics, the result is that you take people off of their foundation and remove a basic ‘orientation’ that is essential. The people and the groups that led this movement were behaviorists and also had an atheistic orientation. Background to this movement that restructured American education can be gotten from reading or listening to Charlotte Iserbyt, and there are many such talks, some academic, some sensationalistic, on YouTube.

    Why was this done? It seems to be an infintely difficult topic! The issue is part-and-parcel of ‘the culture wars’ which are fought somewhat blindly I have discovered by people with very emotionalized opinions, and not much background in strong ideas. On one hand it is because some people thought that by establishing a different metaphysics, a truer one they imagined, that it would empower and free people. This is true, in some ways! But that leads to a conversation on the difference between ‘liberty’ and ‘licence’. And it leads to questions that hinge in basic definitions of value. Such as ‘the purpose of life’ and ‘the purpose of living’.

    To use an example as an illustration, the ‘average American’ (I use this example because this is an American blog and an ‘American conversation’) has fantastic licence and a freedom-of-sorts, but seen from another angle — an unpopular angle — their horizontal freedom stands in contrast to what I call ‘vertical liberty’. These references require explanation and I try to fill it out in what I write. The behaviorists see man as a programmable slate and thus they program him and her to function in certain ways. The horizontal opens up as a result. But the ‘vertical’ dimension is closed off. To define what is that ‘vertical dimension’ is not easy. It requires elaborate discourse, time and energy.

    I am realy sorry, at least in some sense I am, to bring this out but I think it really has to be stated: Americanism and the Americanopolis has very little to do with original American Constitutional values and the high philosophy that informed the Founders. A perverse shift has been engineered over time and the idealistic America has been transformed into something really quite different, and possibly opposite. What brought this about? Again these are questions that open up not only into ‘the culture wars’ but into very core and very important political, philosophical and religious questions.

    But the essential message that has to be received, and understood, is the degree that America has been — and is — perverted, and as a result of this perversion, dangerous. That is why Guillaume Faye (and many many different people in the New European Right, and of course numerous in the nascent American New Right) see America as an ‘adversary’. But when I say ‘America’ I mean a machine running the show.

    You are not there actually to do *us* any particular good, you are there to capture markets, extend or maintain power, and use power for perverse ends. As a culture you are *sinking* and you do not provide any sort of an example for European restoration, or spiritual and cultural growth, nor do you hold and inculcate the primary values of Europeanism. You have ‘gone off the rails’. You have made yourself a bastard culture and in a certain sense a culture of mongrels. But it is very important to understand how this was something that was, in definite ways that can be traced, done to you. The undermining of education, knocking people off their proper foundations, the influence of mass-advertising and mass-entertainment, and the subversion of Republican institutions: it is all of-a-piece and it all functions together and becomes, as so many clearly see, this horrifying juggernaut that careens over the landscape shrieking.

    This is it. This is what you have become. And it will go forward exactly like you see it now, day by day, week by horrifying week, year by year until some sort of wall is hit. What that wall is, who can say?

    One of the things that has proven very difficult, for me anyway, is cracking the brittle shell of American certainty. So many arrogant fellows crow about ‘America’s greatness’, which has undeniable truths in it certainly, but yet *you* do not seem to be able to take into account what has happened, and what is directly visioble, directly in front: present and manifest.

    This is what has to be turned around. It is not just American work, it is pan-European work. It has to do with discovering and reempowering the core and dynamic spirit of Europe. One step in that direction brings 100,000 rewards. One step away: death.

      • In my view I think they might have begun to approach an answer, but as you likely can gather from what I write I think ‘the problem’ is quite a bit larger. It is an intellectual and ethical struggle to arrive at an ‘answer’.

        Hirsch himself speaks of an elemental form of literacy: the ability to decode words on a page. But then he alludes to more sophisticated levels of literacy which are harder of attainment.

        My idea about ‘what has happened’ is more similar to Richard Weaver’s (who influenced me) and for that reason I am searching for a more encompassing analysis. ‘Cultural literacy’ is a lower dimension of ‘true intellectuality’.

        That is why the question Who did this? How did this come about? is still open.

  12. In the case of “keep your powder dry”, this wonderful old saying is no longer commonly understood because it presumes: 1. a working knowledge of the operation of a tool that is no longer universally used – a firearm. 2. Knowledge of a type of technology that is now uncommon even for that tool – muzzle loading. I think the phrase has fallen out of common use and understanding because of the advancement of technology.
    In popular music, where it can be fairly presumed that the lyrics are written to be understood by as many listeners as possible, one see’s this all the time.
    Try to explain these song lyrics to someone under 40:
    “PEnnsylvania 6-500!” Shouted by the entire Glenn Miller orchestra. See, it was a kind of phone number, in New York City…no, not in Pennsylvania…
    “Long distance, information? Give me Memphis, Tennessee” Chuck Berry had picked up a phone, and was talking to the operator, um, yes a person that helped you on the phone…and he was trying to find a long distance number, um, long distance? Well…
    “I’ll teach you how to fax in the mail-room honey, and get you home by 5!” Here Aerosmith is describing a type of office machine, and trying to get an attractive woman into the mail-room…that’s where the letters and bills went to in an office…
    So from Glenn Miller in 1940 to Aerosmith in 1989, we have popular song lyrics that were once universally understood in American culture, and would mystify many today.

  13. Pingback: Cultural Literacy With Darmok and Jalad - Windypundit

    • I usually don’t post these, which I get from other blogs all the time, but I want Windy to keep blogging, and he’s a regular here.

      Honestly, I have never thought about cultural literacy, which is, after all, just part of being educated and a competent citizen and member of civilization, as a “conservative” issue. Do non-conservatives really want the public to be cretinous mush-heads with no knowledge of the people, events, ideas and forces that shape them, their nature and their times? Why would they? I’d say that following the culture in the US and curiosity about the relevant culture of the Western World is a lot more responsible for what I believe and know than my formal education.

      I find arguments against the concept of cultural literacy just bizarre. Individual cavils about what should be common knowledge, OK, that’s legit. Personally, I think if you have never seen Casablanca, Shane, A Man for All Seasons, The Magnificent Seven, It’s A Wonderful Life, don’t know the pieces and moves in chess, don’t know who Babe Ruth is, don’t know a thing about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ but its name, can’t identify Charles Lindbergh or Charley McCarthy and don’t know what “The War of the World” panic and the campaign of Gene McCarthy were all about, you are societally crippled and devoid of the intellectual curiousity God gave a sponge.

      But that’s just me.

      • I didn’t read Windy’s rebuttal as being “against the concept of cultural literacy,” but against the way the term is often used in a snobbish and particularist manner. You fall right back into this at the end of your comment: I only know about half that list, and I’m plenty intellectually curious and more than capable of conversing with you about serious topics without much trouble.

        • Ah, yes, the “snobby” slur. I’ve been hearing it since I was 8. Casablanca, Shane, A Man for All Seasons, The Magnificent Seven, It’s A Wonderful Life,the pieces and moves in chess, Babe Ruth, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Charles Lindbergh or Charley McCarthy,“The War of the World” panic and the campaign of Gene McCarthy are minimal cultural literacy level, and anyone teaching should know all of them. All of them.

        • I didn’t read the rebuttal at all. I was responding to the statement that cultural literacy is a “great bugaboo of conservative pundits” which is just how those on the left excuse being ignorant, or wanting the public to be, which is more the point.

          • I didn’t read the rebuttal at all.

            You should.

            I was responding to the statement that cultural literacy is a “great bugaboo of conservative pundits” which is just how those on the left excuse being ignorant, or wanting the public to be, which is more the point.

            That’s not what he meant. Which you’d know if you read the rebuttal. (And you really think Windy and most on the left *want* people ignorant?)

            • No, but a despicable % does. All the better to mislead on the First and Second Amendment. All the better to have them believe that Hillary was the most qualified candidate ever. All the better to claim that the Founders were just a bunch of racists. (Republicans like the public dumb too.)

              • The Establishment Class, including the Democrats en masse and the Establishment GOP (GOPe) ALL want the public dumb as rocks, perpetually emotional children, incapable of following an argument, and with an attention span no longer than two minutes, for those gifted with extraordinary patience.

                Bread and circuses have been replaced with welfare (government dependence) and reality TV.

                Honest question, Jack: do you think Western Civilization is on the same road the old Roman Empire took? Their Republic fell and ushered in the Dark Ages. Our Republic seems to be on the same path, and Europe is falling as we speak.

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