|Detail from The Triumph of History Over Time (Allegory of the Museum Clementinum, ceiling fresco) by Anton Raphael Mengs (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)|
“[C]ultural literacy—the grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their readers and listeners already have—is the hidden key to effective education in America.” — E. D. Hirsch, Jr., 1987
America seems to pride itself on rugged individualism.
Steeped largely in the mythical cowboy popularized by the likes of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart westerns, there is a wide swath of people who think hard work and determination will allow anyone to prevail who’s willing.
The reality is that we all owe our success to someone else, that nothing significant is accomplished without help, and that individualism comes at a price.
Whether it was our relatives, immigrants who arrived generations before we did, or their family situations overseas, someone made it possible for the next generation to accomplish what it did.
Someone took a risk on the unicorn CEOs, someone made introductions that mattered, someone fronted capital for the latest technological wonder. There is literally no one who is self-made. We all need help along the way.
But we operate under the false assumption that toughness and individuality will win the day. Doing so jeopardizes our future.
“Try to listen with your inner ears to those who went before you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on, who all wanted to be good ancestors to you…the time has come for you to return the favor. You have to learn to be good ancestors to the future.” — Vartan Gregorian, 2006
Did You See _____?
It doesn’t help that we all have individualized news feeds these days.
Gone are the days when we experienced the shared reality brought to us by three or four television networks, nightly news programs with tens of millions of viewers, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
We all watched the same Saturday morning cartoons, and they shaped our view of culture. As Elaine said to Jerry in “The Opera” episode of Seinfeld:
“It is so sad. All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
What’s sadder is that our children don’t have the ability to relate to each other through common viewing experiences (with a few exceptions) because their YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok feeds are all different.
When we have fewer cultural touchstones, we become disaffected and disconnected.
And at a time when we have remote employees who don’t interact the same way or who don’t attend the same in-person meetings they used to, that lack of connection will lead to a breakdown of loyalty.
It should be no surprise then that the Great Dispersion is upon us, as Scott Galloway wrote:
“The pandemic has given us a preview of our dispersed future. Today we have social distancing — tomorrow the distancing will be structural. In a dispersed world we’ll have fewer encounters involving diversity of skin color, economic status, and gender/sexual/political orientation. When we do have these encounters, they are in the wrong context. Arguing with a stranger over a mask isn’t likely to produce tolerance as much as it will reinforce existing stereotypes.”
A Civic Duty
The lack of common experience extends to our understanding of history and civics as well. You know the old trope about those not knowing history, and it’s largely true.
There seems to be a startling rise in ignorance over things that have been taught in school or that one might pick up along the way, when reading or relating to fellow citizens.
Of course, it would help if we read more. Twenty-three percent of Americans haven’t picked up a book in the last 12 months.
Our understanding of basic civics isn’t encouraging: more than half think that immigrants who are in the United States illegally do not have rights under the U.S. Constitution.
And as far as religion, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most other religious groups.
“Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” — Daniel Boorstin
What Do We Know?
Popular culture and sports tend to capture the most attention. So it stands to reason that for a brief moment, we were united by Kobe Bryant's death; it transcended all other news in early 2020.
We had the opportunity to be united and focused like never before on the global pandemic. All attention was on Covid-19, but vaccines and even masks became politicized, based on our news feeds. Is it any surprise? Those who rely on social media for news are less likely to get the facts right about the coronavirus and politics and more likely to hear some unproven claims.
To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world. A disinterested and culturally illiterate society lacks the context necessary to hold even the most basic conversations.
To achieve cultural literacy, we need more shared experiences and fewer instances of knowledge or entertainment that are unique to us.
Our tenuous grasp of present reality puts our future at risk.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
The related episode of Timeless Leadership (released every Thursday) is now available. Our guest is Jason Steinhauer, author of History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past. Listen to it below or wherever you get podcasts.
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