Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Stuff to Know

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So–John says there’s “no longer an adult canon” and Michael asks if most people knew Shakespeare’s references anyway…

So let’s start there.

First, there is still definitely an adult canon.  A canon isn’t just a set of books everybody decides they want to know, or even that a bunch of people in power decide everyone has to know.

A canon is a vocabulary–it’s a language in which the people of a culture speak. 

And it’s not necessary that the people be able to read to speak it, either.   I don’t know about rural peasants in Shakespeare’s time, but his plays were wildly popular with the urban–and illiterate–lower classes, who picked up their cultural vocabulary in church and in (again) fairy tales.

We have a great deal of really wonderful art because the literate upper classes knew just how important it was that the illiterate lower classes be able to understand that canon, or at least the basic ideas and images of it.

They would, of course, have called that saving their souls.

But no culture in history has ever been able to survive for long without a shared cultural vocabulary, and this culture (meaning American, now) would fall apart in a heartbeat without it.

For better or for worse, we have spent the last century embarked on a great experiment to prove the whole of human history wrong–to prove that it is possible to take people of different races, ethnicities, religions and personal histories and make them into a single self-identified nation.

We took seven thousand years of “identity is blood and soil” and said, “nope, don’t have to do that, that’s the stupid way, we can do it better.”

What makes Americans Americans is a shared cultural vocabulary.  And most Americans have it.  It may not be the canon as traditionally understood–I’d make a good case for why it’s desperately important that every American know who and what Superman is–but it’s a canon nevertheless.

We’ve spent the last forty years or so pretending that this is not true, and that it does not matter what kids learn while they’re growing up, in school or out, but we’ve done it while keeping a dirty little secret.

The higher you want to go up the ladder of success and power in this country, the more of that canon you’d better know. 

A black kid with an absent father and a crack addicted mother who wants to sell her to a pimp for drugs is at more of a disadvantage because her school didn’t teach her fairy tales and the Federalist Papers than because of anything else in her background.

I used to tell my children that the most important thing was to make sure they knew how to read, because if you could read you could always find out for yourself what you needed to know.

An at least glancing acquaintance with an at least skeletal component of the canon is necessary to being able to read.   It’s impossible to get through the op-ed page of the daily New York Times without a singularly vast array of cultural knowledge, and not just the highbrow stuff, either.

Most of us have this culural vocabulary so deeply embedded in our minds by the time we’re adults that we don’t think of it as anything anybody has to learn in the first place.   We blow past references without even realizing they’re references because we know them so well, they feel “obvious,” or automatic.

And even distinctly low-brow, mass-trash stuff–stuff meant to sell to people who know virtually nothing–automatically assumes a fairly broad cultural vocabulary.  It was one of the shocks of my life when I realized that a solid majority of my students didn’t understand the lyrics to half the rock and pop songs they declared they  loved. 

Go look at the lyrics to a song called “Love Story” by Taylor Swift.

We no longer teach a defined canon of works in elementary and high schools because we’ve decided not to teach it.  That decision is not a force of nature against which we cannot hope to prevail, but a choice. 

As to that cable television service with the one hundred channels–most of them are showing the same things over and over again in different orders.   CSI versions alone appear on more than a dozen different channels on my cable system, the mini-true crime documentaries (American  Justice, Cold Case Files, Forensic Files, City Confidential) show up on A&E, Bravo, ID, Sleuth, Tru TV, and Bio, among others. 

A country without a shared cultural vocabulary is at best a mess of warring factions.  This country without a shared cultural vocabulary is a country on the brink of a civil war.

But the act is that we have such a shared cultural vocabulary.  We’ve just given up making sure that our least privilieged citizens acquire it. 

And to change that, I don’t think we need to change the schools–it would e nice, and it would help, but it seems to me to be too much trouble to bother.

We do need to start being honest about what an enormous disadvantage it is for a kid to walk into a college classroom–where we say we’re determined to put him–without it.

Written by janeh

August 3rd, 2009 at 8:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Stuff to Know'

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  1. I agree with this – I said something like it, but less eloquently, while you were typing this.

    I think I realized the importance of references – and the extent to which we use them – when I had to translate an article from Time or Newsweek quite a few years ago. I thought it would be a basic, simple job even though (or especially because) I read that sort of stuff regularly, and it was just facts, right? Nothing fancy, like you’d find translating a poem or novel.

    But it wasn’t. When I read it carefully, I realized that a literal translation left out all the references to earlier political and historical events. And I didn’t know enough about the other language and culture to find equivalents.

    References, shared cultural vocabulary, are essential to communication.

    And it’s not an either/or. I think people from minorities, sub-communities/sub-cultures etc. can generally be ‘bilingual’ – fluent in both their own and the larger cultures – without compromising a damn thing.

    Personally, if someone says to me that I don’t the way someone like me should, I just shrug, and move on. I know who I am, and if someone’s opinions about what ‘people like me’ should do don’t match reality, that’s their problem.


    3 Aug 09 at 8:32 am

  2. Oh, gods, you’re probably right. I was all set to protest that of course there was still a canon and our kids were being taught it…. Yeah. Our kids.

    But what are the lower class kids (mostly black and Latino) in Philadelphia public schools being taught? The lower class kids (mostly white) in rural Kentucky public schools? How much of a culture do they share with my son?


    4 Aug 09 at 12:11 am

  3. All pretty well true except for the single note of optimism. Yes, it’s perfectly true that 100 channels of cable is not the same as having 100 equivalents of what the Jurassic Networks used to be. But it remains true that today’s most popular programs have a “market share”–a percentage of all TVs tuned to that program–which would have gotten them cancelled immediately in pre-cable days. As late as 30 years ago, there was a reasonable chance of a popular program calling for regular discussion at work “around the water cooler.” Popular TV theme music was recognised widely. No such thing today, which is why we have a spate of shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and the “Survivor” clones which cost almost nothing to produce. A real TV drama is expensive, and requires an audience share they mostly can’t get.

    Which, getting back to the discussion, is why TV will not provide the missing cultural background to deprived kids. The common culture just isn’t as widely shared as it once was.

    Of course, it’s also why I was watching BANACEK last night, with references to SILAS MARNER and Gloria Steinem. They really don’t make them like that any more.


    4 Aug 09 at 5:11 am

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