The Culture Debate in the U.S.: Whose Culture Is This, Anyway?

Part of the debate about culture revolves around issues of perspective and ownership. Within a nation such as the United States -- a nation whose cultural heritage includes elements from every corner of the world -- there are a great many perspectives coexisting and intertwining in the cultural fabric. When we all ask ourselves as individuals, "what belongs to me, to my culture?" we are rewarded with a spectacular variety of responses; in this way, different perspectives and ownership of different cultural traditions enriches everyone. But when we ask "what belongs to us, to our culture?" we ask a much harder question. Do the people of the United States, or of any culturally complex human society, necessarily share common cultural elements? If so, who gets to decide what those elements are?

This debate is a crucial one in many cultures throughout the world today. In the U.S., the debate promises to impact the way we educate our children -- that is, the manner and shape in which culture reproduces itself -- and the way we write our laws. In other countries, equally crucial issues are at stake.

For a sample of the issues and voices of this debate in the U.S., please visit the three links below: After reading through these very brief quotes, ask yourself: What is your own position in this debate about what elements are a part of the national culture? Perhaps you agree with Hirsch and you feel that a greater body of shared cultural knowledge among all U.S. peoples would enhance communication and intercultural understanding. Perhaps you agree with Hirsch but wonder why his list has room for numerous scenes from Shakespeare's plays but no room for a famous corrido like "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," or why there are three references to a famous slaveowner like Thomas Jefferson but no reference at all to a famous slave like Phillis Wheatley; are the traditional elements of the majority culture to be the common elements of the national culture? Perhaps you would go even further, agreeing with Alice Walker that to understand our cultural tradtions we need to look not only for what was recognized as genius in the past but for the genius that was suppressed and had to assert itself in new, creative, and anonymous ways.

For many people, the what is at stake is the character of U.S. national identity. Hirsch argues that this identity needs to become less culturally fragmented; others, like Walker, argue that the national character gets its strength from cultural diversity, from the freedom (at home and in schools) to celebrate, honor, and reproduce different cultural traditions. Those who take this latter view follow the reasoning of Shweder, arguing that we need to accept that there are multiple valid cultural perspectives and that two such perspectives can both be valid even though they might contradict one another. For a fuller articulation of this argument, visit Engines for Education, an electronic publication which argues forcefully that Hirsch's "cultural literacy" project threatens the effectiveness and integrity of the U.S. educational system.

Recognize that the position you take in this debate about culture -- whatever position you take -- is a political one with implications about what we should value, what we should praise, what we should accept, what we should teach. When you reflect on this debate, when you contribute your own voice to the discussion, try to be aware of the implications that follow from your position. When you listen to the voices of others, try to listen with awareness, deciding for yourself what is at stake and how their positions relate to your own.

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