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It’s A Shock I Can Type At All

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I wasn’t going to write a blog entry today, because a mess of a night with a couple of family emergencies–minor, but energetic–meaning that I am LITERALLY running on no sleep.  Okay.  I conked for about an hour after lunch, sitting up on the love seat.

But still.  I’m in no shape.  And I know I don’t take any responsibility for typos usually, but today I can barely see the keyboard.

I just want to post an explanation.  A number of people have been reading and responding to older posts, some very old indeed, and I just don’t know if I ever explained everything or not.

So here goes:

1) The literacy in the title of the “Literacy Quiz” is CULTURAL literacy. 

2) And I knew exactly what I was testing–I was trying to find out just how much trouble my students were going to have with their textbook.

All the questions on that quiz were pulled from a composition textbook that consisted of some straight chapters but mostly essays and articles from various writers.

All those items were mentioned in the text without any explanation whatsoever.  For instance, the writer of an essay might say, “The Europeans of the new century thought they were too civilized to engage in the kind of self-interested bloodiness of their ancestors, but in just a few months they would find themself involved in a conflagration that would make June 15, 1815 look like a kindergarten rehearsal for a very adult play.”

Okay, that was a terrible sentence.  I’m tired.  But you see what I mean.  If you don’t know what June 15, 1815 is, you can’t understand what the writer is saying.

All written work above a certain level of difficulty is full of allusions like that.  There are literally thousands of references across the culture that most writers simply assume most readers will just know. 

And “getting” the allusions goes a LONG was to being able to understand what a writer is saying.  In some cases, if you DON’T get them, you also don’t understand, period.

The textbook we were using was not a difficult one, and it was written for students of at best moderate academic ability.  Most of these students struggle daily with understanding the books and articles they’re asked to read, and they struggle not because they didn’t drill in phonics but because they have no cultural context to speak of.

I could get a hundred questions of that kind just by sitting down with the editorial/op ed pages of the New York Times on any given Sunday (that’s an allusion–did you get it?), and I sat down one afternoon in my living room and got nearly a hundred from just two pages of McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues.

All writers use allusions.  They have to.  No writer would ever get anything written if she had to explain everything, all the history, all the literature, all the art, all the politics, all the current events. 

That test did me in good stead as long as we used the book it was based on, because it told me where I had to stop and outline what they  needed to know to understand what they had to read. 

Without it, I would have failed a lot more people than I did, and I was not a cream puff.

And I don’t think being able to Google it is a substitute for knowing.  For one thing, lots of them didn’t even realize an allusion was present–they had no idea there was anything to do a search for.  For another, if you have to stop 15 times in the course of a 1000 op ed to look stuff up,  your understanding of the piece as a whole isn’t going to have been much better than if you hadn’t bothered. 

Be reassured, however–they didn’t get grades on that test, and it wasn’t part of their final grade for the course.

It was for my information.

And my information was depressing.

Written by janeh

July 20th, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'It’s A Shock I Can Type At All'

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  1. It’s a never-ending battle. Something came up recently whare I had to explain the fault line in the Balkans. The short answer was “Remember Yugoslavia was a creation of Versailles: the Serbs were under Ottoman rule until late in the 19th Century, while the Slovenes and Croats held their land in military service to the Habsburgs.” Then I had to explain the explanation: what was Versailles, who were the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, and what was the significance of serving one or the other. You wind up with a short history of Central Europe, and people can’t write opinion pieces that way. The writer has to assume a certain level of knowledge in his readers.

    Mind, you, my audience knew there had been a Yugoslavia, roughly where it had been and where and what the Balkans were. For Jane’s students you’d probably have to drop back to Mohacs and the First Siege of Vienna then work forward, which would take about an hour. You can’t read like that. You have to have the cultural context going in.


    20 Jul 11 at 6:08 pm

  2. Ah, yes, CULTURAL literacy.

    It is so nice to know that when someone writes, “He kept his appointment in Samarra,” the writer means “he” died.

    What I find tragic is that the “younger generation,” which for me is anyone about age 40 and younger, just plain doesn’t care anything at all about anything that happened (or that was written) before they came to an age of awareness. And yes, I am culturally literate enough to know that the classical Greeks were also complaining about that very thing…


    20 Jul 11 at 6:26 pm

  3. You know, the difference is intellectual curiousity. And yes, I knew almost all of it, and it was a pretty good selection of stuff people need to know to read intelligently. But I’m curious about, well, everything, so I can also understand allusions to (some) modern music and Japanese cultural terms and current sports stars and the like, which my husband deems beneath his notice. Also important if you want to succeed in the modern world, no?



    20 Jul 11 at 7:12 pm

  4. My inquisitive and magpie mind seems to have acquired a fair bit of information as I’ve gone through life, and I don’t really understand how some people can’t get simple references. Mind you, there are entire fields of endeavor that I don’t get references to, either – when I was much younger, my male cousins were, um, extremely amused at me talking about sports – I think I said something about the hockey Grey Cup. The Grey Cup is for Canadian football. Hockey teams get the Stanley Cup…I’m pretty sure.

    It’s the historical, and to a similar but lesser degree, the related geographical illiteracy that baffles me the most. Back when I was, for my sins, trying to teach, it was popular to try to put science into context by including bits of history. This just doesn’t have the same impact if students can’t put, say, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Einstein in the right chronological order. And you don’t have time to teach the world history as well as science.

    Not that they did a lot of history. I think the basic provincial/national/world history was there, somewhere in the curriculum, but not as it had been in my day. We had less choice in courses, and did world history for two years. On the other hand, I didn’t do any geography at all after Grade 8 (much to my immense relief) because that was taught to the non-university bound students when we were doing history.


    20 Jul 11 at 8:45 pm

  5. I’m reminded of “Connections” with James Burke. IMO, one of the best popularized science shows ever, because he did exactly what Cheryl is talking about…connected science, inventors and inventions to historical and political causes and effects. With re-enactments. ;)

    I spent my youth reading (by choice) mostly SF and Fantasy, with the occasional mystery thrown in, starting with Nancy Drew at age 7 and working up from there. Plus whatever was assigned in school (advanced English all the way into College).

    But I read prodigious amounts of whatever it was, and so sucked in a lot of cultural literacy along with the prose. Odd to think that simply reading a lot, and somewhat indiscriminately, should lead to what I regard as a relatively solid cultural literacy quotient.


    20 Jul 11 at 10:02 pm

  6. What is sad is watching a young person who is bright, but who hasn’t read much at all, trying to enlarge his vocabulary enough to get into graduate school because even though he scored high on most parts of the GRE (Graduate Record Exam, needed to get into graduate school), he scored in the bottom 10% on the vocabulary part of the GRE. What does one say when that person asks, “Do you think this book of vocabulary exercises will help? Or should I pay money to one of the tutoring services? Which do you think would be best?”
    What I want to say is, “What’s best is to read for several hours every day, starting back when you were four or five years old.” I cannot, of course, say that, but beyond that I have no answer.


    21 Jul 11 at 12:28 am

  7. I have been thinking more about cultural literacy. When I went to high school the English teachers had a wide latitude in what they could pick for their students to read, but it was not complete freedom. The 10th grade teachers had a list of books to pick from, and the 11th grade teachers had a list, and the 12th grade teachers had a list. The 9th grade, unfortunately, was in the junior high, and we had only a stupid English lit textbook full of excerpts from assorted works of fiction and drama. What the high school teachers also had no choice about was Shakespeare. One year we read MacBeth, one year we read Julius Caesar, and one year we read Hamlet.
    When my daughter went to high school, there were not only no lists for the teachers to pick from, but there was no Shakespeare taught at all. As a result, when she was in 9th grade, she had to read and discuss THE HOBBIT in English class. In 10th grade English she was again required to read THE HOBBIT. In the 11th grade she again had to read THE HOBBIT. And, yes, in the 12th grade she had to read THE HOBBIT. I don’t remember what she thought of the book the first time she had to read it, but I do remember what she thought the second time she was told she had to read it, and the third time she had to read it, and the fourth time she had to read it.


    24 Jul 11 at 11:32 am

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