White Privilege, White Literacy?

In my previous post I made (quite spontaneously) a connection between cultural literacy as promoted by E. D. Hirsch and white privilege as described by Peggy McIntosh:
One interesting thing about McIntosh's analogy is that some of the provisions in the "invisible knapsack"—namely the "maps, passports, codebooks, visas,"—are what you might expect a tourist to have. A traveler, who wants to be able to accurately and easily move around. E. D. Hirsch, in his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, describes cultural literacy in exactly these same terms. I wonder how much of what social justice activists and Tumblrites think of as "white privilege" isn't just evidence of a vast and still growing rift between class-cultures. However, gluing the fragmented cultures back together might smack of "cultural appropriation." That will be a tough sell.
Indeed, it was a tough sell—too tough, since after a brief resurgence in the 80s, the teaching of cultural literacy has largely been chased into the cramped quarters of the conservative intelligentsia. The thinking goes that cultural literacy, which Hirsch confesses is mostly (though not entirely!) about white Anglo-European Judeo-Christian men, is the antithesis of multiculturalism and diversity. That the more of one you have, the less of the other you can get. My own thinking goes that this is a dangerous zero-sum game, and actually works against social progress.

Bernard Schweitzer, in an article for the NEA Higher Education Journal, used to believe it. But he realized, while teaching a remedial composition class, that cultural literacy really is a passport to broader society. An article summarizing the debate over climate change was filled with literary references and allusions, Schweitzer wrote:
When I tossed out questions about what these words and phrases might mean, I got the following results: one student out of 15 could identify Mahatma Gandhi; none had ever heard of Ernest Hemingway; none had a clue who Thoreau was; two could identify Job as a biblical character; one had a vague recollection of George Orwell; and as for “in the offing” or “excretions of our economy,” only one or two could do anything at all with these expressions.
One of Hirsch's main contentions in his book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, is that common culture creates a "general audience" for writers (and directors, and...). Consider the opposite: if you couldn't be sure that anyone but the people in your state (or your part of the state) would understand all your references and allusions, how could you convey a full range of meaning to a wide audience? Anything syndicated over a large region or the whole nation would have to be, in some sense, like Simple English Wikipedia.
From xkcd.com, a comic for every occasion.
Yet even as I agreed with Hirsch's sentiments, I couldn't help feeling a bit squicky—thanks to the American meme machine pumping out anti-authority myths!—at the thought of some mostly-rigid "canon" of material. Even though Hirsch made sure to emphasize that cultural literacy education would only be part of the full education. As a child of the post-postmodernist era (or, the "Me Generation"), I've been trained to avoid one-size-fits-all pre- and proscriptions.

At the same time, I like dropping references, and alluding to other works. It adds nuance, or a little dopamine spike of recognition at the very least. I was already somewhat alarmed, before reading Hirsch, by the tendency for people (especially the gif-makers on Tumblr... wow, I'm really hating on that site) to craft image macros and "references" with next to zero connection to the referents! It goes from being "Hey, I'm making a clever statement using this source material" to being "Hey, this is a cool image, let me put some text on it."

But there's an even more important, and problematic, conundrum here. Schweitzer notes, with more than a little forboding, that not everyone subscribes to the multiculutralist educational paradigm. Specifically, the increasingly minority-skewed public schools take that approach, while the WASPy, WEIRD private prep schools (and for a slightly different kind of literacy, the private religious schools) adhere closely to the cultural-literacy approach. The result is a real and growing self-segregation between the culturally literate elite and the multicultural masses.

I'll go into what can be done in a later post. But it's important to recognize the disparity between what social progressives would like to see—an American culture that draws from all its myriad sources, and accurately reflects the multifarious populations who came to its shores—and what they actually recognize is true today—American culture is, lamentably, skewed towards its white-Christian-male-dominated history. I think there's an idea that teaching literacy in this culture is the same as promoting it. To be fair, that danger is certainly present. But one can teach Biblical literacy without promoting Christianity, or teach a course on totalitarianism without advocating for it.

Somehow not teaching people the ways of the dominant culture is seen as fighting that culture. But I see it as retreating from that culture, ceding power and control to those who still hold the reins of society, who still communicate in these terms. If this practice continues, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will also be much harder to reform a system, if future generations of well-intentioned would-be reformers don't understand the system they oppose. Total revolution might be more amenable to ignorance, but when, over all of human history, has ignorance been better than knowledge?

I think it's largely a matter of perspective. On the one hand, you could take the position that the relative whiteness and maleness and Christianity of the "Western canon" is proof positive that we should reject teaching it as much as possible. I suspect this attitude is what prompted a female student in my 19th Century Romantic Literature class to lament the lack of female authors on the reading list... even though the Romantics really were mostly male, and the notable female romantics (Austen, the Brontë sisters) were already widely read in other classes.

On the other hand, you could take the position that educating students in the relatively white-Christian-male canon with a suitably skeptical voice could prompt them to wonder why it's so white, Christian, and male. To basically recognize the very problem that social progressives are trying to solve! This, while simultaneously equipping them to communicate the previous generation. The best way to advance an argument, after all, is to say it in the language of your audience. (Robin Koerner clarified this position in his presentation at the Cascade Liberty Summit... see this post.)

How, then, can we achieve that culture shift? It won't be easy; but when has large social change ever been easy? And this is the equivalent of Atlas, shrugging.

Onward!