Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation
A generation of hindsight now enables Americans to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as the United States, 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.
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.
Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change.
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.”
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, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. Americans need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that diversity can be most fully activated.