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How to Be American

Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever—and why such a project serves progressive ends.

By Eric Liu

Tagged Culture

Is the culture war over?

That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.

And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.

Yet from another perspective, much of this angst can be interpreted as part of a noisy but inexorable endgame: the end of white supremacy. From this vantage point, Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked—and like it or not, over the course of this generation, we’re all going to have to learn a new way to be American.

Imagine that this is true; that this decades-long war is about to give way to something else. The question then arises: What? What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white”? The answer, of course, will depend on how aware we are of what we are, of what our culture already (and always) has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror.

It helps first to consider some recent history. In 1987, a well-regarded professor of English at the University of Virginia named E.D. Hirsch Jr. published a slim volume called Cultural Literacy. Most of the book was an argument—textured and subtle, not overtly polemical—about why nations need a common cultural vocabulary and why public schools should teach it and, indeed, think of their very reason for being as the teaching of that vocabulary.

At the end of the book Hirsch and two colleagues tacked on an appendix: an unannotated list of about 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that, in their view, “every American needs to know.” The rest (to use a phrase that probably should’ve been on the list) was history.

The appendix became a sensation and propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list. Hirsch became that rare phenomenon: a celebrity intellectual. His list was debated in every serious publication and elite circles. But he also was profiled in People magazine and mass media and cited by pundits who would never read the book.

Hirsch’s list had arrived at a ripe moment of national anxiety, when critics like Allan Bloom and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were bemoaning the “closing of the American mind” and “the disuniting of America”; when multicultural curricula had arrived in schools, prompting challenges to the Western canon and leading Saul Bellow to ask mockingly who the Tolstoy of the Zulus was, or the Proust of the Papuans; a time when Bill Bennett first rang alarms about the “dumbing-down of America.”

The culture wars were on. Into them ambled Hirsch, with his high credentials, tweedy profile, reasoned arguments, and addictively debatable list. The thing about the list, though, was that it was—by design—heavy on the deeds and words of the “dead white males” who had formed the foundations of American culture but who had by then begun to fall out of academic fashion. (From a page drawn at random: Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, Herman Melville).

Conservatives thus embraced Hirsch eagerly and breathlessly. He was a stout defender of the patrimony. Liberals eagerly and breathlessly attacked him with equal vigor. He was retrograde, Eurocentric, racist, sexist. His list was a last gasp (or was it a fierce counterattack?) by a fading (or was it resurgent?) white establishment.

Lost in all the crossfire, however, were two facts: First, Hirsch, a Democrat (“I’m practically a socialist,” he told Politico Magazine last year), believed his enterprise to be in service of social justice and equality. Cultural illiteracy, he argued, is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness. Second: He was right.

A generation of hindsight now enables us to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols.

Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity. If it isn’t drastically more inclusive and empowering, what takes the place of whiteness may not in fact be progress. It may be drift and slow disunion. So, first of all, we do need a list. But second, it should not be Hirsch’s list. And third, it should not made the way he made his. In the balance of this essay, I want to unpack and explain each of those three statements.

Why Common Knowledge Matters

Let’s begin with the claim that we do in fact need a list of what every American needs to know.

If you take the time to read the book attached to Hirsch’s appendix, you’ll find a rather effective argument about the nature of background knowledge and public culture. Literacy is not just a matter of decoding the strings of letters that make up words or the meaning of each word in sequence. It is a matter of decoding context: the surrounding matrix of things referred to in the text and things implied by it.

So, for instance, a statement like “One hundred and fifty years after Appomattox, our house remains deeply divided” assumes that the reader knows that Appomattox is both a place and an event; that the event signified the end of a war; that the war was the Civil War and had begun during the presidency of a man, Abraham Lincoln, who earlier had famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”; that the divisions then were in large part about slavery; and that the divisions today are over the political, social, and economic legacies of slavery and how or whether we are to respond to those legacies.

Likewise, another sentence often uttered in this anniversary year of the end of the Civil War—“Today’s GOP is the party of Jefferson Davis, not of Lincoln”—assumes that the reader knows what the GOP is and what the acronym stands for, who Jefferson Davis was, how he was different from Lincoln, why it is that Republicans call themselves the Party of Lincoln, and why it is that some people, in spite of that, see in the modern Republican Party the spirit of the old Confederacy.

Hirsch, as an authority on reading and writing, is concerned with traditional texts. But his point about background knowledge and the content of our shared public culture extends well beyond schoolbooks. They are applicable to the “texts” of everyday life, in commercial culture, in sports talk, in religious language, in politics. In all cases, we become literate in patterns—“schema” is the academic word Hirsch uses. We come to recognize bundles of concept and connotation like “Party of Lincoln.” We perceive those patterns of meaning the same way a chess master reads an in-game chessboard or the way a great baseball manager reads an at bat. And in all cases, pattern recognition requires literacy in particulars.

Lots and lots of particulars. This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, an ideologically controversial point. After all, parents on both left and right have come to accept recent research that shows that the more spoken words an infant or toddler hears, the more rapidly she will learn and advance in school. Volume and variety matter. And what is true about the vocabulary of spoken or written English is also true, one fractal scale up, about the vocabulary of American culture.

Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, becoming delinked—and, like it or not, we’re all going to have to learn a new way to be American.Hirsch was taken by some critics to be a political conservative because he argued that cultural literacy is inherently a culturally conservative enterprise. It looks backwards. It tries to preserve the past. Not surprisingly, Hirsch later became a fan of the Common Core standards, which, whatever their cross-partisan political toxicity today, were intended in earnest to lay down basic categories of knowledge that every American student should learn.

But those who demonized Hirsch as a right-winger missed the point. Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change. Indeed, in a notable example of the application of cultural literacy, Hirsch quoted in his book from the 1972 platform of the Black Panther Party:

10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE’S CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

He cited another passage, from the Black Panther newspaper:

In this land of “milk and honey,” the “almighty dollar” rules supreme and is being upheld by the faithful troops who move without question in the name of “law and order.” Only in this garden of hypocrisy and inequality can a murderer not be considered a murderer—only here can innocent people be charged with a crime and be taken to court with the confessed criminal testifying against them. Incredible?

These samples demonstrated for Hirsch two important points: First, that the Black Panthers, however anti-establishment, were confidently in command of American history and idiom, comfortable quoting the Declaration of Independence verbatim to make their point, happy to juxtapose language from the Bible with the catch phrases of the Nixon campaign, wholly correct in grammatical and rhetorical usage.

And second, that radicalism is made more powerful when garbed in traditionalism. As Hirsch put it: “to be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987.

A Changing America

The new America, where people of color make up a numerical majority, is not a think-tank projection. It may well be the condition of the people born in this country this very year. But an America where nonwhites hold a majority of the power in civic life is much farther off. If you are an immigrant to the United States—or, if you were born here but are the first in your family to go to college, and thus a socioeconomic new arrival; or, say, a black citizen in Ferguson, Missouri deciding for the first time to participate in a municipal election, and thus a civic neophyte—you have a single overriding objective shared by all immigrants at the moment of arrival: figure out how stuff really gets done here.

That means understanding what’s being said in public, in the media, in colloquial conversation. It means understanding what’s not being said. Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power. And so any endeavor that makes it easier for those who do not know the memes and themes of American civic life to attain them closes the opportunity gap. It is inherently progressive.

Of course, it’s not just newcomers who need greater command of common knowledge. People whose families have been here ten generations are often as ignorant about American traditions, mores, history, and idioms as someone “fresh off the boat.”

Cultural illiteracy, E.D. Hirsch argued, is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness.

The more serious challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.

But why a list, one might ask? Aren’t lists just the very worst form of rote learning and standardized, mechanized education? Well, yes and no. It is true that lists alone, with no teaching to bring them to life and no expectation that they be connected to a broader education, are somewhere between useless and harmful.

Lists that catalyze discussion and even debate, however, are plenty useful. If you open up Hirsch’s list at random you’re certain to find entries that launch deeper inquiry and learning and that are helpful to know if you want to be a capable citizen. In fact, since I started writing this essay, dipping into the list has become a game my high-school-age daughter and I play together. Consider, from pages 204 and 205:

Sharecropping

Sherman Anti-Trust Act

Sodom and Gomorrah

Speak softly and carry a big stick

Spirit of ‘76 (image)

stagflation

I’ll name each of those entries, she’ll describe what she thinks to be its meaning. If she doesn’t know, I’ll explain it and give some back story. If I don’t know, we’ll look it up together. This of course is not a good way for her teachers to teach the main content of American history or English. But it is definitely a good way for us both to supplement what school should be giving her.

And however long we end up playing this game, it is already teaching her a meta-lesson about the importance of cultural literacy. Now anytime a reference we’ve discussed comes up in the news or on TV or in dinner conversation, she can claim ownership. Sometimes she does so proudly, sometimes with a knowing look. My bet is that the satisfaction of that ownership, and the value of it, will compound as the years and her education progress.

The trouble is, there are also many items on Hirsch’s list that don’t seem particularly necessary for entry into today’s civic and economic mainstream. They seem pulled from the nineteenth-century McGuffey’s Readers that Hirsch nostalgically praises, drawing from English, Latin, and Biblical references that in the 1800s seemed timeless:

Shoot, if you must, this old gray head…

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sing a Song of Sixpence (song)

soft answer turneth away wrath., A

But it turns out items like this aren’t timeless. They were displaced, as time passed, by sayings and songs of people from other places.

Which brings us back to why diversity matters. The same diversity that makes it necessary to have and to sustain a unifying cultural core demands that we make the core less monochromatic, more inclusive, and continuously relevant for contemporary life. A list for cultural literacy, like the Constitution, is not an antiquarian’s specimen to be left untouched. It is an evolving document, amendable and ever subject to reinterpretation. We need a list made new with new blood. We are such a list.

Why We Need to Remake the List

What, then, are the 5,000 things that an American in 2015 should know?

Before we get to that, it’s worth unpacking the baseline assumption of both Hirsch’s original argument and the battles that erupted around it. The assumption was that multiculturalism sits in polar opposition to a traditional common culture, that the fight between multiculturalism and the common culture was zero-sum.

That’s certainly how the politics and media coverage of the early culture war played out. Dead White Men against Afrocentrists. Each side’s claim seen as a debit from the other’s. But that was a profoundly artificial dichotomy. As scholars like Ronald Takaki made clear in books like A Different Mirror, the dichotomy made sense only to the extent that one imagined that nonwhite people had had no part in shaping America until they started speaking up in the second half of the twentieth century.

The truth, of course, is that since well before the formation of the United States, the United States has been shaped by nonwhites in its mores, political structures, aesthetics, slang, economic practices, cuisine, dress, song, and sensibility. Takaki’s “different mirror” is kaleidoscopic, reflecting at each turn the presence and influence of peoples generally excluded from traditional histories of American life—and reflecting too the way each of those peoples, whether Apache or Chinese or Mexican or West African, influenced other peoples in America.

Yes, we are foundationally English in our language, traditions of law, social organization, market mindedness, and frames of intellectual reference. But then we are foundationally African as well—in the way African slaves changed American speech and song and civic ideals; in the way slavery itself formed and deformed every aspect of life here, from the wording of our Constitution to the forms of our faith to the anxious hypocrisy of the codes of the enslavers and their descendants.

We are all these things and more.

As the cultural critic Albert Murray wrote in his 1970 classic The Omni-Americans, the essence of American life is that it relentlessly generates hybrids. American culture takes segments of DNA—genetic and cultural—from around the planet and re-splices them into something previously unimagined. The sum of this—the Omni—is as capacious as human life itself, yet found in America most fully. This is jazz and the blues. This is the mash-up. This is everything creole, mestizo, hapa.
In its serious forms, multiculturalism never asserted that every racial group should have its own sealed and separate history or that each group’s history was equally salient to the formation of the American experience. It simply claimed that the omni-American story—of diversity and hybridity—was the legitimate American story.

What’s happened in the generation since multiculturalism first became a bugaboo to some is that a generation has passed. And as Nathan Glazer has put it (somewhat ruefully), “We are all multiculturalists now.” We have come to see—we have chosen to see—that multiculturalism is not at odds with a single common culture; it is our single common culture.

Yes, it is true that in a finite school year, say, with finite class time and books of finite heft, not everything about everyone can be taught. There are necessary trade-offs. But in practice, recognizing the true and longstanding diversity of American identity is not an either-or. Learning about the internment of Japanese Americans does not block out knowledge of D-Day or Midway. It is additive. It brings more complexity and fosters a more world-ready awareness of complexity.

Which brings us back to the list. The list, quite simply, must be the mirror for a new America. As more diverse voices attain ever more forms of reach and power we need to re-integrate and reimagine Hirsch’s list of what literate Americans ought to know.

It needs fewer English antecedents (“Trafalgar, Battle of”). It needs fewer elements of grammar (“ellipsis”). It needs fewer outmoded idioms (“tied to his mother’s apron strings”). It needs nods to how the language mutates (attaching “-gate” to any scandal post-Watergate). It needs new references that illuminate how Hindus worship, how Koreans treat elders, what pieces of African custom were grafted onto what pieces of Scots-Irish custom to form what kinds of Southern folkways.

We have come to see—we have chosen to see—that multiculturalism is not at odds with a single common culture; it is our single common culture.

It needs more than just words, because literacy in this mediated age is not only verbal. It needs images (braceros on ranches, ballplayers in internment camps). It needs symbols (“Don’t Tread On Me” flags and “99%” placards; quinceañera dresses and historically black sorority letters). It needs iconic sounds (Marine Corps cadence calls, a sustained Sinatra note). It needs the lingo of poor and working-class communities (Southie and Crenshaw) as much as the argot of elite precincts. It needs the most durable Internet memes (like the meme format itself), media metaphors (like “playlists” or “bookmarks”), and pop culture referents.

To be clear: A twenty-first-century Omni-American approach to cultural literacy is not about crowding out “real” history with the perishable stuff of contemporary life. It’s about drawing lines of descent from the old forms of cultural expression, however formal, to their progeny, however colloquial. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant hip-hop musical Hamilton reminds us, every voice contains an echo; every echo can be given new voice.

Nor is Omni-American cultural literacy about raising the “self-esteem” of the poor, nonwhite, and marginalized. It’s about raising the collective knowledge of all—and recognizing that the wealthy, white, and powerful also have blind spots and swaths of ignorance so broad as to keep them dangerously isolated from their countrymen.

So we need a list. And not the list that Hirsch made in 1987. What, then, would be on your list? It’s not an idle question. It turns out to be the key to rethinking how a list should even get made.

The Literacy of the Network

Not long after his original book came out, Hirsch published the first of several editions of a Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Here the list could be supplemented with explanations and pictures. What’s striking about the most recent edition, from 2002, is how multicultural it is compared to the first appendix. Where the 1987 list mentioned China but never Chinese Americans, the 2002 dictionary describes the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Still, it’s notable that the 2002 dictionary was the last edition published. We’ve moved on. The tempo of meme creation and destruction has become too fast for one person, one book, to follow.

That’s because the Internet has transformed who makes culture and how. As barriers to culture creation have fallen, orders of magnitude more citizens—amateurs—are able to shape the culture in which we must all be literate. Cat videos and Star Trek fan fiction may not hold up long beside Toni Morrison. But the entry of new creators leads to new claims of right: The right to be recognized. The right to be counted. The right to make the means of recognition and accounting.

And as the pool of potential culture-makers has widened, the modes of culture creation have similarly shifted away from hierarchies and institutions to webs and networks. Wikipedia is the prime embodiment of this reality, both in how the online encyclopedia is crowd-created and how every crowd-created entry contains links to other entries. (It also demonstrates that democratization can yield something much richer than a lowest-common denominator result.)

What does this mean for our Omni-American cultural literacy project? For one thing, the list for our times can’t be the work of one person or even one small team. It has to be everyone’s work. It has to be an online, crowd-sourced, organic document that never stops changing, whose entries are added or pruned, elevated or demoted, according to the wisdom of the network.

Everyone should make his or her own list online. We can aggregate all the lists. And from that vast welter of preferences will emerge, without any single person calling it so, a prioritized list of “what every American needs to know.”

It also means that every entry on this dynamic list can be a node to another list. So an entry on “robber barons” (present in the 1987 list) should open up to “malefactors of great wealth” (TR’s line, not on the 1987 list) and “economic royalists” (FDR’s, not there either) and “the 1%.” There should be an entry on “Southern heritage” that links sideways to other euphemisms for white supremacy. Or an entry on “women’s suffrage” that links to other suffrage movements.

This will be a list of nodes and nested networks. It will be a fractal of associations, which reflects far more than a linear list how our brains work and how we learn and create. Hirsch himself nodded to this reality in Cultural Literacy when he described the process he and his colleagues used for collecting items for their list, though he raised it by way of pointing out the danger of infinite regress. “Where should such associations stop?” he asked. “How many are generally known by literate people?”

His conclusion, appropriate to his times, was that you had to draw boundaries somewhere with the help of experts. My take, appropriate to our times, is that we can let our fellow Americans draw not boundaries so much as circles and linkages, concept sets and pathways among them. And indeed, on the website whateveryamericanshouldknow.org, we are starting just such an experiment with an online survey.

Because 5,000 or even 500 items is too daunting a place to start, we ask in that survey only for your top ten. What are ten things every American—newcomer or native born, affluent or indigent—should know? What ten things do you feel are both required knowledge and illuminating gateways to those unenlightened about American life? Here are my entries:

Whiteness

The Federalist Papers

The Almighty Dollar

Organized labor

Reconstruction

Nativism

The American Dream

The Reagan Revolution

DARPA

A sucker born every minute

I chose some off-center items—Reconstruction instead of the Civil War, for instance, or the Federalist Papers instead of the Constitution—because the off-center concepts imply and necessitate command of the central ones. Others, like nativism, are both a specific historical reference and recurring motif in American politics. And “a sucker born every minute” is of course both a particular saying and a general emblem of a society that revolves around mass entertainment.
What are your ten, and why? (And if you like, what are your next ten, and the next?) Share your lists with us. Argue them out with friends and family and fellow citizens. The culture wars can give way to a conversation about the culture we are. And together, over time, we can author a definitive, unendingly edited guide to how to read, write, speak—and be—American.

To submit your own top ten, visit whateveryamericanshouldknow.org.

Hundreds of readers have already filled out our survey online. Here are the most popular responses as of press time:

  1. Manifest Destiny
  2. Trail of Tears
  3. New Deal
  4. 9/11
  5. Bill of Rights
  6. military-industrial complex
  7. Jim Crow
  8. Cold War
  9. “I Have a Dream” speech
  10. American Dream
  11. civil rights movement
  12. The Federalist Papers
  13. climate change
  14. Constitution
  15. Martin Luther King Jr.
  16. Reconstruction
  17. Citizens United
  18. American Exceptionalism
  19. Stonewall
  20. The War on Drugs
  21. Roe v. Wade
  22. Abraham Lincoln
  23. Gerrymandering
  24. The Civil War
  25. Brown v. Board of Education
  26. The Declaration of Independence
  27. jazz
  28. Watergate
  29. Slavery
  30. trickle-down economics

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Eric Liu is co-author, with Nick Hanauer, of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government and The True Patriot. He served as a speechwriter for President Clinton and later as White House deputy domestic policy adviser.

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