A Cultural Literacy Test

I hope to be writing a bit more about the ethical importance of cultural literacy and life competence, which includes cultural literacy.

Here’s a self-test, a hard one. There are 25 photos below of famous, once famous and important figures from many fields, from many periods. See how many you can correctly identify. They each are worth points from 1-10, based on difficulty. At the end, I’ll ask how you did.



























The answers…

Keep scrolling…






  1.  Pop star Ariana Grande (2)
  2. Writer/ speaker Jordan Peterson (5)
  3. Humorist Robert Benchley (7)
  4. Baseball superstar Mike Trout (5)
  5. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (2)
  6. .  Serial killer Ted Bundy. (4)
  7. Gospel singer Marion Anderson (5)
  8. Iconic clown Emmet Kelly (6)
  9. War correspondent Ernie Pyle. (9)
  10.  President James K. Polk (1 )
  11. “Lil Abner’s” Daisy Mae (5)
  12. Playwright Eugene O’Neil (7)
  13. Actress Bo Derek (3)
  14.  Singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson ( 6)
  15. Actress Marie Dressler (10)
  16. Artist Pablo Picasso (3)
  17.  NBA great Wilt (The Stilt) Chamberlain (4)
  18. Recording Artist Connie Francis (7)
  19. Justice Elena Kagan (2)
  20.  Comic Flip Wilson (5)
  21. Late night host James Cordon (2)
  22.  First Lady Dolly Madison (4)
  23. Humorist Art Buckwald (9)
  24. Interviewer Sir David Frost (8)
  25.  Boxing champion Joe Louis (4)

Perfect score: 125

44 thoughts on “A Cultural Literacy Test

    • I found that I had not even heard of most of these people. I did get the politicians right. Except for Chamberlain, I am not sure I even recognized the names of the athletes. Of the people whose names I recognized, this was the first time I had ever seen many of their pictures. However, last night, I was 34/35 on the people in my son’s history assignment (I didn’t know Robert Raikes). I have never been that interested in pop culture or even traditional high fiction. I guess that is what happens when your teacher assigns you to read 4 Faulkner novels in a month freshman year. It is a miracle I didn’t commit suicide.

  1. I don’t agree that knowledge of US popular culture should be a shibboleth when it comes to ethics. OK, I’m biased, being a foreigner, but isn’t ethics about universals, rather than localised ephemera? Outside the US, who cares about baseball? Are the 8 billion people who don’t care, thereby unethical?

    • I think the point is that we should (underline should) know certain iconic figures within “our” culture. Given that Jack is an American and writes primarily for an American audience it stands to reason that his picks are for the most part US centric.

      I do agree that tests which ask to put an image with a person are somewhat suspect. For example I know who Ernie Pyle was and what made him famous. I can name all 9 justices on the Supreme Court and how they can be expected to lean but I still misidentified Kagan as a young Janet Napolitano. That would not have happened if there was some context in the photo.

      Ironically, I can ID Arianna Grande even though I would not know what her voice sounds like, the names of any of her songs or much else for that matter. To me her claim to fame is her concert got shot up: hardly what one wishes to give fame. Conversly, I failed to identify Connie (Where The Boys Are) Francis an icon from many of the coming of age beach movies of the 60’s.

      I could not pick out Picasso but I can identify his works and discuss his abstractions relative to earlier cubists. So which is more important?

      So unless these people are wanted by the police I am happy in knowing about and their works even if I cannot pick many out of a lineup.

      • As an aside – I was in the same boat as you regarding Ariana Grande, but that changed a few months ago when I realized just how amazing her voice is. I’m not saying you should go find any of her albums, but if you see her on a late night show and she’s showing off her pipes, definitely don’t dismiss her out of hand.

  2. Only got 32, and a bit glum. I know about most of them by name and accomplishments, but I’m rather poor at visual identification. (I read about them more than look at faces in photos) Pop singers and most sports figures are ephemeral importance- so there was NO way I would know #1.

  3. As I said last year right about this time, when you so graciously gave me a comment of the day, who gets to decide who or what is culturally relevant? You didn’t include a picture of Wynton Marsalis or Louis Armstrong, for instance; two giants of jazz, which is the only true American art form (we apparently imported virtually everything else). What about Horace Mann, considered to be the father of public education (I wouldn’t take any bets that you would include him, but still…). I did a reasonable job on this test, but probably not as well as I should have. I am sad to report that I have visited the James K Polk home in Columbia, TN, but really don’t know why he was important enough to include in this list. On the bright side, when I see things like this I am often motivated to go find out more about the subjects, so keep it up!

    • Yeah, I started with the intent of having 20 in the test, then realized I needed more, but also decided more than 25 was too time-consuming. Jazz, religion, Rap—these and several others should have been included.

  4. Unimpressive 23. I can’t believe I didn’t get Joe Louis or David Frost. Connie Francis I recognized, but I guess my mental index is blown, as I couldn’t find her name in my memory until prompted by your answer.

  5. If there’s a line through the category I had no clue, if the name is left blank I just couldn’t recall it. If I couldn’t get the name but got the rest I gave myself half the points.

    I’m usually extremely bad with names, I did better than I thought I would.

        • It hasn’t been there a “long” time.

          Honestly, I wouldn’t have recognized Ernie otherwise if I hadn’t seen the statue. I’ve been well aware of the name and what he wrote for a long time. I probably first became aware of putting the name to the writing when I went to school in Bloomington, IN. They’re really proud of prominent Hoosiers in Indiana.

      • DD,
        I’m usually terrible at these things, this was just a lucky list for me. Give me a different list tomorrow and I could be worse, much much worse. Trivia is not my thing.

        If you completely take out the points I gave myself to knowing who they were without remember or knowing their name I would lose 21.5 points and end up with only 67.

  6. 40, here. Some I missed were familiar but tangled mental pathways resisted. Some…no clue whatsoever; left me with that Joe Btfsplk feeling…

    Daisy Mae -v- Jessica Rabbit?

    Daisy Mae in a landslide!

    • 71. I couldn’t remember Bo Derek’s name for the life of me. Remembered Farrah Fawcett and Daryl Hannah, both of the same vintage. And of course, knew she was in “10” and was married by her director. But I have a hard time with names these days, faces fine, names fly out of my brain. Thought Pablo Picasso was Bill Cosby. Hah. Thought Ted Bundy was one of the Menendez brothers. Extra points for remembering Flip Wilson was playing Geraldine? “Don’t make me buy that dress, Devil!” finally thought of David Frost, first thinking his name was Jack Snow (49ers receiver’s name). I guess Arianna Grande but have no idea what she sounds like or whether she’s named after a Starbucks hot drink. Thought O’Neill was Faulkner. Recognized Ernie Pyle only because I taught an AP English class one of his columns and researched him. What a wonderful writer he was. And a war hero. Knew he is revered on the IU campus so that setting helped. Thought Robeson was Sammy Sosa but guessed Herbie Hancock given the piano pose. That was fun. Am waiting to see what Jack thinks this all means. Not sure. Mrs. OB would say, “How do you remember all this stuff? And why?”

  7. A good list, though I’m not sure exactly what it proves. I got 6 points here, but who’s to say in another list I might have got 125? Interestingly enough the 3 people I knew by their picture, Only one of them could I tell you anything else about them other than their profession. I could add 29 more points if you wanted a short summary about them, but that still leaves me with only 35 points. However, I agree with your premise regarding cultural literacy 100%

  8. I got 7 of 25, for 25 pts. Not so good.

    But the comedy starts with the ones I guessed but missed:

    I thought 3 was Ray Bradbury
    10, Warren G Harding
    18, Hedy Lamarr
    22, Jane Austen
    23, Warren Buffet
    25, Cassius Clay

      • A wild guess. Don’t SAT administrators encourage guessing? But she and Madison were pretty much contemporaries. Plus the Empire era style dress and hair cut. I thought Austen lived until about 35 before the pneumonia got her. She was about Mozart’s age when the grim reaper got her. As with Mozart and Chopin and Schubert Schumann, I’ve always wondered what literature and music would be like if these early dying geniuses had had normally long careers and the work we have would be their juvenilia.

          • Jane was prettier but I’m biased. She’s in my top five of writers, maybe higher among fiction writers. Tremendous sense of humor and unparalleled command of the English language. I can’t think of a better ironist. Maybe Faulkner is an equal in that respect.

  9. I got 21. I did get Frost, because i recently watch Frost/Nixon, so though maybe it’s him. As a relatively young person, I want to say this list definitely skews towards an older audience.

    • It does, but then an inadequate knowledge of history, including events and figures that precede one’s birth, is a hallmark of cultural illiteracy.

      Whatever one’s age, one should be able to ID every President, one of the two or three most important First Ladies, a current SCOTUS justice, the greatest American playwright, America’s first true black superstar athlete, major black civil rights icons, the National passtime’s #1 player and highest paid player, the most famous and important 20th Century artist in the world, a US Senator running for President, and te greatest American playwright. AND< if one is young, Ariana Grande. That's more than 40 right there.

      • For the record, my results were:
        1. Ariana Grande
        2. Jordan Peterson
        5. Kirsten Gillibrand
        19. Elena Kagan
        21. James Corden
        24. Robert Frost

        • I missed both of the first two. (You mean David Frost. But Robert would have been a good one to include too. “The photo not taken…” Good for you for recognizing Kagan without her robes!

      • d_d, If I’d waited, “Bo Derek” would have popped into my mind at five tomorrow morning. My inability to put a name on a face that I knew was one of the reasons I retired from practicing law at fifty. Of course, a good friend of mine just defaults to “Hey there! How ya doin?'” in those circumstances.

  10. “Instead of Learning Pythagoras’s Theorum, I wish I had learned ____________ in school.”

    This is something my friends and I talk about constantly, how ill-prepared for life some kids are despite being able to calculate the length of the side of a triangle opposite a right angle. If they can even do that. One thing that at this point we all accept is that people have a limited capacity to learn, remember, and care.

    So take for instance when my parent’s parent’s generation was going through school. They learned how to print, then how to write, and then how to write calligraphy. By the time my parents went through school calligraphy had dropped from the curriculum, by the time I had gone through it was replaced by keyboarding, and now my littlest sister doesn’t know how to hand-write herself out of a wet paper bag. Over time, what we as society deem relevant evolves, and has to, to keep up with reality. both in current needs (really… You have to be able to type to get by today) and in our capacity to learn (four different ways of putting words on paper seems extreme).

    So when I see things like this… I think of it as a kind of a Silent Generation Meme showcase, with a little pop culture sown in. I got 13, and that’s only because the Canadian on this list, Peterson, was worth 5 points. I don’t feel like I’m functionally illiterate, or currently writing to you from under a rock on the bottom of Lake Winnipeg, but I have no conception under God how I would ever even HEAR the name Marie Dressler.

    Which is an awful long way of writing that while I agree with the general assertion that cultural literacy is important, I think that “literacy” in this context is a constantly moving goalpost.

  11. I identified 9 of 25. So, what was my score? I don’t know. I scored myself 4 points for every one I identified, so I gave myself a score of 36.

    I actually don’t think that is a poor score. But I’m OK with anyone looking at my score and saying, “You are SO culturally illiterate!” I don’t care.

    Identified: 2, 4, 6, 13, 17, 19, 20, 24, 25.

    I knew who the athletes are (or were) – no surprise at all. Ironic, and kinda funny (I think), that I would identify both the serial killer and the Supreme Court justice. I was purely Lucky to identify Jordan Peterson – shows how much YouTube I have been watching lately. Bo Derek was a “10,” so that’s no surprise, either. David Frost, I wouldn’t have recognized, had I not followed the presidency of Nixon so closely. Geraldine (Flip Wilson) won my heart (and my laughter) so as to make her (him) unforgettable.

    I knew I had seen a number of the others (Ariana, Gillibrand, James Cordon, Art Buchwald, more), but simply could not match names to their faces. I almost embarrassed myself by confusing Emmet Kelly with Red Skelton.

    Basically, this test merely reflects the literacy of the test-maker, in my opinion.

  12. I did well I think. But, the only reason I knew Ariana Grande was because of the Rep. Dan Crenshaw/SNL issue. Marie Dressler is a favorite. Dinner at Eight is on my annual viewing list. Bo Derek I knew. (Not to be confused with Ursula Andress or Linda Evans.) Derek’s episode on Chuck is a giggle. “Bo Derek’s a spy? “Yeah, and a talky one to boot.”

  13. Believe it or not, I had a full report here, including brilliant insights and bald confessions. Hit the wrong key. Will rewrite, I promise. But not at 5:07am.

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