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.
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?