E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Decline of Literate Knowledge
From Cultural Literacy, 1987

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The quote below is from one of his most influential works, Cultural Literacy, which in its entirety makes the case that "cultural literacy" in the U.S. is being eroded because the foundational elements of a shared culture are no longer being laid in the school system. Hirsch argues in favor of a shared cultural canon; one is "culturally literate" if one is familiar with the canon. To support this view, Hirsch and two of his colleagues included an appendix to the book entitled "What Literate Americans Know: A Preliminary List." The list, which Hirsch meant to "reflect culture" in the U.S. and to serve as a springboard for national curricular change, has been criticized as reflecting only the dominant culture, to the detriment of the multiple cultural heritages which are a part of the national cultural system.

My father used to write business letters that alluded to Shakespeare. These allusions were effective for conveying complex messages to his associates, because, in his day, business people could make such allusions with every expectation of being understood. For instance, in my father's commodity business, the timing of sales and purchases was all-important, and he would sometimes write or say to his colleagues, "There is a tide," without further elaboration. Those four words carried not only a lot of complex information, but also the persuasive force of a proverb. In addition to the basic practical meaning, "act now!" what came across was a lot of implicit reasons why immediate action was important.

For some of my younger readers who may not recognize the allusion, the passage from Julius Caesar is:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
To say "There is a tide" is better than saying "Buy (or sell) now and you'll cover expenses for the whole year, but if you fail to act right away, you may regret it the rest of your life." That would be twenty-seven words instead of four, and while the bare message of the longer statement would be conveyed, the persuasive force wouldn't. Think of the demands of such a business communication. To persuade somebody that your recommendation is wise and well-founded, you have to give lots of reasons and cite known examples and authorities. My father accomplished that and more in four words, which made quoting Shakespeare as effective as any efficiency consultant could wish. The moral of this tale is not that reading Shakespeare will help one rise in the business world. My point is a broader one. The fact that middle-level executives no longer share literate background knowledge is a chief cause of their inability to communicate effectively.

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