Is it getting easier to fake cultural literacy?
It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.
In his 1987 book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” E. D. Hirsch Jr. listed 5,000 essential concepts and names — 1066, Babbitt, Pickwickian — that educated people should be familiar with. (Or at least that’s what I believe he wrote, not having actually read the book.) Mr. Hirsch’s book, along with its contemporary “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom, made the point that cultural literacy — Mr. Bloom’s canon — was the bedrock of our agreed-upon values.
What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.
[. . .]
With the advent of each new technology — movable type, radio, television, the Internet — there have been laments that the end is nigh for illuminated manuscripts, for books, magazines and newspapers. What is different now is the ubiquity of the technology that is replacing every old medium.
The information is everywhere, a constant feed in our hands, in our pockets, on our desktops, our cars, even in the cloud. The data stream can’t be shut off. It pours into our lives a rising tide of words, facts, jokes, GIFs, gossip and commentary that threatens to drown us. Perhaps it is this fear of submersion that is behind this insistence that we’ve seen, we’ve read, we know. It’s a none-too-convincing assertion that we are still afloat. So here we are, desperately paddling, making observations about pop culture memes, because to admit that we’ve fallen behind, that we don’t know what anyone is talking about, that we have nothing to say about each passing blip on the screen, is to be dead.
As the author notes, each technological advance has been accompanied by complaints about what we're losing by moving from the old medium. What's different today is not, as he says, just the ubiquity of the new technology. It is that there's so much information out there that our cultural touchtones are being crowded out. What we're trying desperately to keep up with isn't really cultural literacy but the social media zeitgeist.
Until recently, even if we wallowed in trivia, we still knew there were cultural ideas and concepts that Bloom and Hirsch noted were the bedrock of our agreed-upon values. While we're pretending to know what's in the latest chatter, we're losing sight of the fact that we might no longer have agreed-upon values. That's more than a little scary.