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We're the Sweeney, Son, and We Haven't Had Any Dinner

The death of Dennis Waterman seems the perfect excuse to use a line from what I still regard as the best cop show ever made as the title for a blog.  My brother and I used to beg our parents to be allowed to stay up to watch Waterman and John Thaw in ‘The Sweeney’, with Thaw’s line in one of the first episodes setting the tone for what would follow as he sneered at some likely lad wanting to know who he was. 

We were older by the time ‘Minder’ came along and we did not need permission to stay up to watch it, but it was always appointment television for our family and we loved it nearly as much.  By the time Waterman starred in ‘New Tricks’, which was always a diverting way to spend an hour in an evening, we were old enough to have children of our own.  Always very watchable, he brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure, me included.

When I first started teaching in a secondary school, the internet had been invented but very few people were using it.  Indeed, personal computers were still very much in their infancy and I was on the verge of being ahead of my time – a rare event indeed – because I had been gifted an Amstrad machine by my grandfather and I could type, save and print text in my own home.

The information available to people back then largely came from the television and national newspapers.  Sky TV was in its infancy, so most us just watched four channels, often via a rented set, with a VHS video recorder added to the package if we could afford one.  Well, at least that is how I remember it, and a quick flick through Wikipedia suggests my memory is not too far wrong.  We may not have had much choice, but it meant that people had shared experiences that could be discussed the next day at school and work.  A really good box set on Netflix can still have an impact nowadays, but it is increasingly rare that everyone watches the same thing at the same time.  

My latest read has been ‘Cultural Literacy’ by E.D. Hirsch, which was written in the 1980s, probably at about the time the idea of shared experiences was starting its journey to the diversification we see today.  Hirsch argues that to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world, pointing out that the breadth of that information is great, extending over the major domains of human activity from sports to science, and it is by no means confined to ‘culture’ narrowly understood as an acquaintance with the arts. 

He is keen to point out that cultural literacy is definitely not confined to one social class, but rather it is quite the opposite, and actually constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that usually condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents.  However, he recognises that many young people strikingly lack the information that writers of books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations, highlighting that our children’s lack of intergenerational information is a serious problem, and claiming that the decline of literacy and the decline of shared knowledge are closely related and interdependent.

I often joke with my Lower Sixth history class that I would not want to co-opt any of them onto a pub quiz team because they usually struggle to answer what I would consider to be straightforward general knowledge questions.  These emerge with varying degrees of relevance from the topics we are studying in class and I use them to break up the lesson and find areas of common ground.  However, I know I am doing the pupils a disservice in assuming that, because they share very few of my cultural literacy parameters, they must therefore lack general knowledge in areas of their own interests.  As they might struggle to answer questions to which I know the answers, so I would struggle to answer questions they might set.

Hirsch traces the origins of the need for a shared cultural literacy to the industrial revolution, when economic arrangements required a different political and linguistic system.  Economic units became larger and economic advance became perpetual.  The water wheel gave way to the internal combustion engine.  The worker had to adapt constantly to new, more efficient methods.  Because of the continually changing occupations that were increasingly demanded by large industrial societies, people had to communicate with a wider economic and social community. 

Achieving wider communication required literacy and a common language.  At the same time, the political system had to become correspondingly bigger, to carry out laws and provide centralised control.  Because of modern economic needs, the goals of language standardisation and universal literacy became ever more urgent.  Education in cultural literacy was the central requirement of industrial society.

Hirsch argues that we have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education because it has been something we have been able to take for granted.  He says that we ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul.  Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.  Only when we run into cultural illiteracy are we shocked into recognising the importance of the information that we had unconsciously assumed.

When discussing the need for specifically focused educational initiatives to develop what he perceives as the failings of the system, he makes the point that all cognitive skills depend on procedural and substantive schemata that are highly specific to the task at hand, claiming that general programmes contrived to teach general skills are ineffective.  He says that research shows that experts perform better than novices not because they have more powerful and better oiled intellectual machinery but because they have more relevant and quickly available information.  What distinguishes good readers from poor ones is simply the possession of a lot of diverse, task-specific information.

The book ends with a list of names, phrases, song titles and other miscellany that he compiled as an attempt to categorise what people who are culturally literate should know.  There are about 5,000 items on the list, from Aaron, Hank (who turns out to be a baseball player, so that was strike one for me at the first entry) to Zurich, via (choosing one item at random from each letter of the alphabet): Beware the Ides of March, concerto, Don Quixote, Euripides, featherbedding, gerrymander, Honduras, insulin, Jezebel, King Kong, latent heat, materialism, nose to the grindstone, Ottawa, per capita, Reign of Terror, quantum mechanics, run of the mill, Shangri-La, tetanus, Ulysses, Valhalla, walking papers, xenophobia and You Are My Sunshine (song).

Hirsch clearly has an agenda about the value of knowledge versus what he perceived to be the woolliness of modern educational theories.  I was not surprised to read that Michael Gove’s policies as Secretary of State for Education were influenced by him.  However, his list of cultural literacy would not stand up to close scrutiny today because it lacks the required diversity to pass muster in the modern age, and the point is often made that knowledge is no longer power because everything can be found via Google in an instant.  My biggest complaint, however, is that ‘The Sweeney’ was not on the list when it surely should have been.


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