Taking Things for Granite

During the last few weeks, the concept of cultural literacy has come up in some of my classes. My students–mostly 18-20 year olds in college writing classes–insist that they’re getting along just fine without knowing where Aberdeen is or who invented the cotton gin. Their defense is that if they need to know something, they can look it up instantly.

They don’t seem to get the argument around cultural literacy, which is that those who are not culturally literate are locked out of conversations and interactions where such references are used. Their feeling, I think, is that unless they’re dealing with antiquated professors like myself, they won’t be encountering these sorts of references, which may be true.

A Valid Victorian

I’ve found, though, that there’s a different type of literacy they’re struggling with, and this one has to do with what I think of as visual literacy. In other words, there’s a decreased familiarity with how words look on the page, probably coming from the fact that people more and more are getting their information from their ears and not their eyes. So the student writes “should of” instead of “should have” because they’ve been used to hearing people say “should’ve” and haven’t noticed the difference if they’ve ever seen it in print. This accounts for other things, like the student who made reference to “minstrel cramps” in her essay about having a baby, or the fact that several students have listened to the “valid Victorian” who spoke at their high school graduation. And then there are the students who write about something being “taken for granite.” Need I say more?

Interestingly, this lack of literacy also applies to cliches. If I mention getting caught red-handed, or coming down off one’s high horse, or having one’s cake and eating it too, there’s just that hint of glazing over in my students’ eyes that tells me they’re too polite to ask what the hell I’m talking about.  I’d hate to think of the visual that students would get if I mentioned in class that something “gave me pause.” They’d no doubt have some strange professor/dog hybrid in mind.

Not getting cliches may not be such a bad thing, but–to go back to cultural literacy–what if I say something about “meeting your Waterloo,” and they don’t get it? And when I follow that up with a reference to Napoleon Bonaparte, and they’re thinking Napoleon Dynamite? I could bring up George Santayana’s point about those who forget the past, but what happens if people forget George Santayana? Are they condemned to repeat him? Or just take him for granite?


10 thoughts on “Taking Things for Granite

  1. Soon they will all have cybernetic wetware Microsofts to plug in behind the ear – et voila: “Whoa! I know Kung Fu!” Oh! That’s right … still no cultural literacy. 😦

      1. Indeed! Although I think I’d be more likely a follower of Asherah and create a biolinguistic meta virus to rid us of the anti-intellectual wastrel generation. So many potential vectors of infection.

    1. Plus all 1000 episodes of Jersey Shore I, II, III, IIII, etc jacked directly into the visual cortex and lizard-brained Limbic system for immediate recall. Here’s hoping that Snow Crash appears soon after .

  2. “Minstrel cramps”… yikes. A heavy reliance on spell check won’t help you with heterographic homophones.

    While I share your concerns, I’m wondering whether it’s a criticism every generation has of the next. Maybe it’s the older folks who will be blocked from the growing number of conversations and interactions filled with the cliches and cultural references of the young. It could be a bigger problem for us than it is for them.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right. Those of us who are bothered by lol and omg might do well to remember teenagers saying BFD back in the seventies and eighties, long before texting. If young people can’t connect to old cliches, I wonder what the next generation of cliche’s will be.

    2. AMB – First: Thanks for writing “heterographic homophones”. A more beautiful conglomeration of syllables I have never seen. Second: Getting older now (late 40s) and having been steeped in a great deal of ostensibly worthless pop culture and T.V. as a kid I’ve wondered if I’m just being a cliched grumpy old guy to critique the culture of the current generation. As a game designer and programmer for 20 years being exposed to 20 and 30 somethings is an occupational hazard. Perhaps my impression is skewed by this demographic’s peculiar obsessions but what I see as a result of their game addiction is a lack of content to their personalities, replaced almost solely by competition. The dominant narrative art forms of my generation, even the least among them, had made some efforts at adding meaningful depth to their content. (The Sleestak > ? ) Due to the limitation of game technology for the past 30 years deep narrative has not been possible and so the vast majority of their time has been spent not consuming value driven narrative but rather engaged in simplistic goal driven activities: get from point A to B while collecting things and “Save the Princess, Mario”. And I’ve noticed this structure folding back into their narrative content. Perhaps this is good and will allow them to shrug off the archaic values of a dying, corrupt, hypocritical, moralistic society for which I personally have no enduring love. I’m just worried what game they will replace it with. Whoever has the most coins wins.

  3. I rather like the phrase “taking things for granite”. It’s wrong, but it may actually convey what the writer of speaker intends — that something is being regarded as “set in stone”, or unchangeable.

    “Minstrel cramps”, though, is another story. Understanding the logic of THAT one surely requires concerted effort.

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