Cultural literacy is the ability to understand and recognize key concepts, allusions, and references that are an essential part of a given culture. For example, a culturally literate American, when presented with the phrase "Fourscore and seven years ago," will recognize immediately that it is an allusion to the Gettysburg Address, and will therefore be prepared for themes of liberty, justice, and sacrifice in the body of the discussion. Likewise, a culturally literate American who reads Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" will immediately recognize the line "So Eden sank to grief" as a reference to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve and the Fall; thus, the reference will help the reader understand that the poem is about man's mortality.
Cultural literacy is as important as literacy to becoming a well-educated, incisive thinker. Studies have demonstrated that, frequently, students are able to read a given passage, but unable to comprehend it because they lack the cultural literacy to understand the references presented. If a reader is ignorant of the works of Adam Smith, for instance, then that reader is likely to struggle to comprehend a discussion of the Invisible Hand. A reader unfamiliar with the early history of the United States, and with the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Founding Fathers, is unlikely to fully comprehend the Constitution or the intent of the Bill of Rights.
A major failing of American public schools is that they place almost no emphasis on teaching cultural literacy. Books and instructional materials are chosen almost entirely based on how easy it is to link them to specific skills. In so doing, a severe disservice is done to students, who are cut off from critical background knowledge, and from a full appreciation of the rich heritage in which they share as Americans.
Sources Critical to Cultural Literacy
While any list of sources necessary for true cultural literacy is somewhat subjective, certain works are so critical that no list would be complete without them.
1. The Bible: Put simply, there is no work more critical to cultural literacy than the Bible. No other work is as influential; no other work is as frequently referenced. Without an understanding of the Bible, it is impossible to fully understand Western literature, European and American history, or the development of the scientific method.
2. The Constitution of the United States: Clearly, anyone who does not have a thorough familiarity with the document which comprises the highest law of the land cannot be said to be culturally literate.