Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Western Civilization in One Volume

According to the theories of E.D. Hirsch, developing reading fluency is largely a matter of “cultural literacy”--that is, knowing the information that a good writer will assume in his audience. This is an important way in which reading differs from listening: a speaker can judge his current audience and their comprehension, and adjust accordingly. An author cannot, and must make assumptions. Cultural allusions, metaphors, and casual references are not in a dictionary: if a student does not catch the reference, he may not even recognize it for an allusion.

Students entering college, therefore, must have the cultural background the authors they read will typically assume, or they are going to struggle with the readings.

Hirsch found this to be a problem for ill-educated native speakers. But it is bound to be doubly a problem for ESL students, coming from a possibly quite different culture. What does this mean but a different set of cultural references and assumptions?

This leads to an interesting, and vitally important, speculation: what are the snippets of information that a foreign student should have, and may not have, in order to be able to read English fluently at the college level? Hirsch has his own ideas, of course, but they are specifically for American students studying in America; and, of course, one is free to differ on what is important.

I'm thinking in particular of ESL students, many of whome can be from a dramatically different culture, from China, Africa, or the Arabian Gulf. They may well need a background, not just in English-speaking culture, but in European civilization generally. What do they need to catch up on?

This will of course differ widely country to country. The best precise mix could be determined by each individual institution or even teacnher through a standard questionnaire testing for knowledge of each element of this set of basic materials.

Of course, some will raise the objection that Hirsch's ideas have faced in America: that such an established canon “privileges” the culture of dead white European males, and so is a sort of cultural imperialism.

That is not our affair. We are not, presumably, obliging anyone to learn English, or to study in North America. Assuming that they do want to learn English, however, and to study in North America, the authors they are going to have to read in a North American or British college are, by and large, going to be dead Europeans. If we have Marxist notions of perfecting the world by deliberately changing the culture, our ESL students are not the place to do it; any more than we have the right to alter the rules of English grammar to suit our own preferences. That would simply be malpractice.

Here are a few ideas I have come up with. Other suggestions are welcome:

Plato's Cave
Aristotle's Law of Non-Contradiction
Aristotle on the syllogism
Aristotle's argument for the Prime Mover
Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God
Occam's Razor
Descartes' Meditations

Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar”

Exodus (highlighting the Ten Commandments)
23rd Psalm
John 1
Luke's birth narrative
The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew
Matthew's passion

The Lord's Prayer
The Nicene Creed

Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal”

The US Declaration of Independence
The US Bill of Rights

ML King Jr., “I Have a Dream”

Concise summary of Robert's Rules of Order
The Wedding Ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer
The Miranda Statement

Faust Legend
Story of Jonah
Story of Daniel
Story of Job
Story of Odyssey
Story of Iliad
Story of Robinson Crusoe
Story of King Lear
Story of Romeo and Juliet
Story of Hamlet
Story of The Merchant of Venice
Story of Moby Dick

Marlowe, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”
Donne, “No Man is an Island”
Rudyard Kipling, “If...”
“Casey at the Bat”
“In Flanders Fields”
“Twas the Night Before Christmas”

It seems to me that all of this could fit into one printed volume, and might be dealt with in one semester of work. I think every ESL college prep program should include this course. Had they read all of this, I suspect that the average ESL student would in fact be better prepared for reading at the college level than is the typical native speaker at the time of college graduation; for, as Hirsch pointed out, our own schools now neglect to teach this.

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