Global Literacy: What You Need to Know Now

Twenty summers ago, in 1987, as the shadows fell on the Reagan years, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, E. D. Hirsch, published a surprise best seller: "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know." (It was No. 2 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction list in June 1987.) Hirsch's basic argument: that every reader needs to be conversant with certain terms and facts in order to make sense of what is written and discussed in the public sphere.

The book was not even in stores before it provoked a debate over diversity and multiculturalism. A clever publicist from Houghton Mifflin, the book's publisher, had arranged for Hirsch to appear at a gathering of education writers in San Francisco, where Hirsch laid out his case, including his 63-page list of terms ranging from "abolitionism" to "Zurich."

A reporter from the Associated Press asked Hirsch, "Why isn't 'Cinco de Mayo' on the list?" Hirsch apologized and admitted he did not know what the phrase meant. (It is the Spanish designation for a holiday commemorating a Mexican military victory over the French on May 5, 1862.) The AP writer filed his piece, which flashed around the nation. By the time Hirsch returned to his hotel room, he recalls, there was a message from a TV station in Texas asking whether he was worried about all the things that were not on the list. "I knew then the storm was coming," Hirsch recalls.

He was right about that. Hirsch was attacked for the limitations of his list, and for the implication that the "culture" about which we were supposed to be literate was a narrowly defined one that excluded the experiences of women, minorities and immigrants. Lists, or attempts to define a literary or cultural canon, make many people understandably uncomfortable.

Today the term "cultural literacy" evokes long-ago culture wars. Though the origin of Hirsch's interest in the topic was how to give disadvantaged students some core knowledge to enable them to grasp allusions the broader culture takes for granted (you cannot understand the question of whether Iraq is "another Vietnam" if you do not know what "Vietnam" means), the book quickly came to stand for a kind of cultural elitism. (The No. 1 best seller in that distant June was Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," an Ur-text for conservatives battling what they saw as the excesses of liberal political correctness.)

One lesson of the debate is that there cannot be a single, definitive list of what Americans should know; the nation is too fluid, too diverse, the world too vast and complex. The value of debating what Americans should know about certain subjects has, however, moved well beyond Hirsch. Foundations and authors now promote financial literacy, geographic literacy, environmental literacy and media literacy; Stephen Prothero's "Religious Literacy" was a best seller earlier this year.

Which brings us to this Special Report. We are hoping to start a conversation about what we are calling Global Literacy—facts and insights about the world (some objective, some subjective) that we think are worth knowing. We are not saying this is all you need to know; just that what you are about to read amounts to a good start. Our perspective is that of an American publication, but our interests are global, and we invite you to write us with your own thoughts and suggestions; we will be returning to the subject in the coming months, and expect this large-scale undertaking to become an annual project.

As you will see, the questions we raise set up short reported essays; they are not just for brainy Trivial Pursuit fans (though those fans will love them). The topics range from terror to Jane Austen, the economy to Picasso, climate change to Muhammad Ali. For the competitive among you, a 130-question Global IQ testawaits, as does the e-mail to write us.

In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, more Americans were able to name the latest winner of "American Idol" (Jordin Sparks) than could identify the Chief Justice of the United States (John Roberts). We are not tut-tutting or wagging our fingers; there is nothing wrong with knowing the former; our view is that people should probably be fluent with both reality TV and the highest court in the land. Makes life more interesting. It is more troubling, though, that nearly half of the Americans we polled did not know that Judaism is older than Christianity and Islam, or that Libya does not border Iraq.

Such polls come and go, and it is easy for more sophisticated Americans to shake their heads ruefully, then move on. But even the most sophisticated do not know everything; one of the points of this NEWSWEEK project is to frame questions that even the savviest consumer of news may not be able to answer readily. Know what business folks mean when they say "BRIC"? Do you think Fareed Zakaria believes we are winning or losing the war against radical Islam? Does Steve Prothero think all religions are essentially alike, or not?

We do not mean to lecture or hector or show off. To whom much is given, however, much is expected. Americans remain rich beyond most of the world's imagination—rich in property, in liberty, in security. None of these things is free, and all are vulnerable, either to market reversals, to grasping leaders, to terrorists. But we cannot survive and thrive if we do not know what that world is like—what it loves, what it hates, and why. In the following pages we hope you get at least a few new glimpses of the world—different angles of vision that reveal things you did not know before, but do now.

Join the Discussion