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Creating an Updated, Online, Crowd-Sourced “Core Knowledge” List

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “What Every American Should Know: Defining Common Cultural Literacy for an Increasingly Diverse Nation” by Eric Liu in The Atlantic, July 3, 2015.
In this article in The Atlantic, Eric Liu (Citizen University and The Aspen Institute) recalls E.D. Hirsch’s 1987 list of 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that every educated American should know. The list was an appendix to Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy, in which he argued that schools need to teach a common set of cultural terms and schema to bind a diverse nation together and give the less-advantaged a shot at entering the American mainstream.
Here’s an example of the amount of background knowledge required to understand a single sentence: "One hundred and fifty years after Appomattox, our house remains deeply divided."
- Appomattox is both a place and an event.
- It marked the end of the American Civil War.
- That war was fought during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
- He famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
- The divisions that led to the Civil War were largely about slavery.
- Some of today’s divisions are over slavery’s political, social, and economic legacies.
- The question implied in the quote is how or whether we will respond to those legacies.
“Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power,” says Liu. “And so any endeavor that makes it easier for those who do not know the memes and themes of American civic life to attain them closes the opportunity gap… That means understanding what’s being said in public, in the media, in colloquial conversation. It means understanding what’s not being said. Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power.”
Hirsch’s list was hotly debated for years. Supporters embraced his argument that cultural illiteracy was a major problem among poor and minority people, and that led to hundreds of “Core Knowledge” schools teaching a grade-by-grade extrapolation of the original list. Critics of cultural literacy pointed out that Hirsch’s choices tilted toward “dead white men” (Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, Herman Melville) and a Eurocentric view of history and culture, and that memorizing lists of facts was not a worthwhile educational endeavor.
This raging debate pitted cultural literacy against multiculturalism, but this is a false dichotomy, says Liu. Since well before the formation of our nation, “the United States has been shaped by nonwhites in its mores, political structures, aesthetics, slang, economic practices, cuisine, dress, song, and sensibility.” The relevant metaphor is a kaleidoscope, “reflecting at each turn the presence and influence of peoples generally excluded from traditional histories of American life – and reflecting too the way each of those peoples, whether Apache or Chinese or Mexican or West African, influenced other peoples in America. Yes, America is foundationally English in its language, traditions of law, social organization, market mindedness, and frames of intellectual reference. But then it is foundationally African as well – in the way African slaves changed American speech and song and civic ideals; in the way slavery itself formed and deformed every aspect of life here, from the wording of the Constitution to the forms of faith to the anxious hypocrisy of the codes of the enslavers and their descendants… Americans have come to see – have chosen to see – that multiculturalism is not at odds with a single common culture; it is a single common culture.”
“A generation of hindsight,” says Liu, “now enables Americans to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as the United States, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols. Yet that generational distance now also requires Americans to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity.” Liu suggests that we update Hirsch’s 1987 list, casting out what is stale and narrow and adding new terms and ideas.
Liu agrees that just teaching a list can be “the very worst form of rote learning and standardized, mechanized education.” But he argues that if a revitalized list is brought to life by effective teaching and connected to a broader education, it can catalyze discussion, debate, and deeper inquiry and be very helpful in schools. The important job is updating Hirsch’s original list so it captures the new America. Some initial suggestions:
- Fewer English antecedents (the Battle of Trafalgar);
- Fewer grammatical terms (ellipsis);
- Fewer outmoded idioms (tied to his mother’s apron strings);
- New terms (attaching -gate to scandals after Watergate);
- New cultural references (Hindu worship, Korean mores on the treatment of elders);
- Images (ballplayers in internment camps);
- Symbols (Don’t Tread on Me flags, 99 Percent placards, quinceañera dresses);
- Iconic sounds (Marine Corps cadence calls, a sustained Sinatra note);
- Media metaphors (playlists, bookmarks) and pop culture references.
But these edits should not crowd out important historical and cultural items, says Liu. “[E]very voice contains an echo; every echo can be given new voice.” The new list, he says, is not about raising the “self-esteem” of minority and disadvantaged Americans. “It’s about raising the collective knowledge of all – and recognizing that the wealthy, white, and powerful also have blind spots and swaths of ignorance so broad as to keep them dangerously isolated from their countrymen.”
Another change: the new list can’t be in a book and can’t be produced by one person or even a team of wise men and women, says Liu. “It has to be an online, crowd-sourced, and organic document that never stops changing, whose entries are added or pruned, elevated or demoted, according to the wisdom of the network.” Out of this collective effort will emerge a new, prioritized list of “what every American needs to know.” And, taking advantage of the magic of technology, items need to be cross-referenced – for example, clicking on “robber barons” should lead us to “malefactors of great wealth” (Teddy Roosevelt), “economic royalists” (FDR), and “the 1 percent.”
Liu concludes by inviting readers to send in their top ten list of required knowledge and “illuminating gateways” for everyone from a new immigrant to a member of the power elite.
Here is his own list:
- Whiteness
- The Federalist Papers
- The Almighty Dollar
- Organized labor
- Reconstruction
- Nativism
- The American Dream
- The Reagan Revolution
- “A sucker born every minute.”
You can contribute your list at this link:

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