The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

by E. D. Hirsch

ISBN: 9780618226474

Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Published in Children & Teens (Young Adult)

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A third edition! My colleagues and I have never wavered in our conviction that the theory behind The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy is sound, as it is based on well-established findings of linguistics and cognitive psychology. But it is gratifying to learn that its scholarly soundness has found a practical resonance with the public.

A new edition is called for to keep up with the changes in American culture. This book contains about five hundred (out of nearly seven thousand) new entries, of which about two hundred are in the science and technology chapters. It is frightening to realize that when we wrote the second edition, almost no one knew what a Web page was. Of the remainder of the new entries, about half are in the fields of history, politics, and geography. A thousand entries have been revised for clarity and updated to reflect current usage. We hope that this book continues to be useful to Americans of all ages and backgrounds.

I say "to Americans" because the concept of cultural literacy implies a national culture. Of course the entries reflect content from many nations of the world, and the principle of cultural literacy is implicitly international. There are by now German, Dutch, and Swedish versions of this book. But each is different, having been adapted to the relevant national language and culture. People within each of these national communities are bound together not just by political institutions and laws, but also by shared values and allusions and a shared language. The public understands that in the United States, our shared language contains not just "the" and "was" but "Birmingham Jail," "Sitting Bull," and "pay through the nose."

(Explanations of idioms like "pay through the nose" have been especially welcomed by immigrant parents and children.)

The public also understands that these shared meanings are essential for communication inside our nation — or, to put the matter simply, they are essential for reading. We all know that reading is the most important academic skill, and that there is a big reading gap between haves and have- nots in our schools. We know that reading skill is a key not just to a child"s success in school but also, in the information age, to his or her chances in life. That is why the federal government and now most of the states have started to place an enormous emphasis on reading.

This is good news and bad news. It"s good news because becoming a good reader is so enormously important. It"s bad news because the people who make and carry out school policies have not been very sophisticated so far about what is needed, beyond sounding out words, to become a good reader. On the important matter of reading comprehension, their vision is vague and clouded. Talking about reading comprehension reminds me of Mark Twain"s comment on the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Reading comprehension scores have not gone up significantly.

In the United States, reading with understanding is based on the kind of background knowledge identified in this book, and it is to be hoped that our schools will begin to do a better job of imparting this kind of knowledge to all children in a coherent and cumulative way. When they do, reading comprehension scores will go up. (Data to support this can be found at the Web site of the Core Knowledge Foundation,

From the start, the premise of this dictionary was that true literacy — reading with comprehension — requires a lot more than sounding out the words on the page. Those who possess the needed, taken-for-granted knowledge can understand what they read, and those who lack that knowledge cannot. The haves learn ever more from what they read and hear; the have-nots fall further behind and lose the chance to become participating members of the wider community.

That word "community" brings me to the second motivation behind this book, the connection between communication and community, especially in a democracy. A lot of American flags are flying these days.

Some people think this is a worrisome show of nationalism, but I believe it is a show mainly of solidarity and community. Community is built up of shared knowledge and values — the same shared knowledge that is taken for granted when we read a book or newspaper, and that is also taken for granted as part of the fabric that connects us to one another.

Horace Mann put it eloquently in his nineteenth-century way in making a case for public schooling and a common curriculum. Shared knowledge, he said, would enlarge "the cultivated class or caste and . . . open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate [artificial] distinctions in society." Mann thought that if everyone shared the enabling words and knowledge of our culture, everyone would gain a sense of solidarity with others. Social feelings would expand.

Artificial distinctions of class and caste would be erased, and patriotic feelings would grow.

The love of country — patriotism — is a very different sentiment from nationalism. A fine book by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, beautifully distinguishes between nationalist and patriotic sentiments.

Nationalism is an aggrandizing, tribalistic sentiment that defines one"s own group as opposed to alien groups, which are seen as potential rivals or enemies to be overcome or excluded. Patriotism, by contrast, implies love of country without necessarily implying hostility to anybody else. American patriotism is built of shared knowledge, attitudes, loyalties, and values, including the values of nonexclusion, toleration, and respect for other religions and cultures. Americans have proved that it is possible to feel patriotic about a cosmopolitan, diverse country, which is loved more for its vital diversity than for its racial or ethnic purity. That was Walt Whitman"s patriotism, and Herman Melville"s. For most of our history, the United States has imagined itself as a patriotic rather than as a nationalist state. George Washington thought of himself and was celebrated as Cincinnatus, the Roman hero who wishes only to return to his hearth and his farm once the necessary sacrifice and service to the patria is accomplished.

To that, Herman Melville added our modern idea of a nation that embraces all races and ethnic groups. He said,

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . . We are not a narrow tribe of men — No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. . . . For who were our father and mother? Or can we point to any Romulus and Remus for our founders? Our ancestry is lost in the universal paternity, and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world"s as our own.

You might want to read the rest of this wonderful passage (Chapter 33) from Redburn, written in 1849. I won"t quote any more of it here. Suffice it to say that this American idea of a new kind of patriotism and community is a tradition that stretches from George Washington to Horace Mann and Herman Melville to ourselves, and it has not lost its pungency and capacity to inspire.

—E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Charlottesville, Virginia, 2002


There are two reasons to pursue scientific knowledge: for the sake of the knowledge itself, and for the practical uses of that knowledge. Because this second aspect of science affects the lives of most people, it is more familiar than the first. Knowledge must be gained, however, before it can be applied, and often the most important technological advances arise from research pursued for its own sake.

Traditionally, new technology has been concerned with the construction of machines, structures, and tools on a relatively large scale. The development of materials for building bridges or skyscrapers is an example of this, as is the development of the internal-combustion engine and the nuclear reactor. While such activities involve all the sciences, from chemistry to nuclear physics, the overriding goal has been the same: to improve the human condition by finding better ways to deal with the macroscopic world.

Since World War II, the focus of technological activity has undergone a major change. While the old activities are still pursued, they have been largely superseded by applications of technology at the microscopic level. Instead of building large-scale structures and machines, modern technology tends to concentrate on finding improved ways to transfer information and to develop new materials by studying the way atoms come together. The silicon chip and microelectronics typify this new technological trend, as does the blossoming of genetic engineering. The advent of the Internet is just one familiar consequence of this new trend, which can be expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

The dividing line between what we include in the following list as technology and what we call science elsewhere in this volume is somewhat arbitrary. In general, what we have done is this: if a term is essential to understanding a particular branch of science, it appears in the list for that science. Thus, atom appears with the physical sciences, even though an understanding of atoms is clearly important to the new technology. If, however, the term involves something that is likely to affect an individual"s life, even though it is not a central concept of a particular branch of science, it is listed under "Technology."

— J. T.

alternating current (AC) An electric current in which the flow reverses periodically. (Compare direct current (DC).)

* In the United States, most household current is AC, going through sixty reversal cycles each second. Electric motors in household appliances are designed to work with current at this rate of reversal.

amp (ampere) (am-peer) A unit of electric current. One ampere corresponds to a certain number of electrons passing a fixed point each second. * A typical household"s electrical supply includes a total of 120 to 200 amps; a typical house circuit carries 15 to 50 amps.

amplifier In electronics, a device that takes a small electric signal and converts it into a large one. Amplifiers are used in stereo systems, electric guitars, and loudspeakers.

amplitude modulation (AM) A type of radio signal in which the amplitude, or strength, of a radio wave is varied in order to carry information from a transmitter to a receiver. (Compare frequency modulation (FM).)

analog signal (an-uh-lawg, an-uh-log) A signal in which some feature increases and decreases in the same way as the thing being transmitted. In am radio, for example, the strength of the radio wave goes up and down in analogy with the loudness of the original sound. (Contrast digital signal.)

Apollo program A series of space flights undertaken by the United States with a goal of landing a man on the moon. Each Apollo flight carried a crew of three astronauts. The first lunar landing by humans was achieved by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Five other successful lunar landings followed. The Apollo program ended in 1974. It was named after the Greek god of learning, Apollo. *Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon.

Arpanet An acronym for Advanced Research Project Agency Network. An early communications network developed by the Department of Defense in the late 1960s. It connected high-tech research institutions and the military. * Creating a communications system that could survive a nuclear war was a major impetus behind the development of this system. * Arpanet is often spoken of as a precursor of the Internet.

artificial intelligence (AI) The means of duplicating or imitating intelligence in computers, robots, or other devices, which allows them to solve problems, discriminate among objects, and respond to voice commands.

ASCII An acronym for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Computers use this code to standardize communication between different machines.

astronaut A crew member of a space mission launched by the United States. (See Apollo program and Mercury program.)

ATM An abbreviation for automated teller machine. This is a computer terminal that takes the place of a human bank teller and allows the user to access basic bank services, such as making deposits and cash withdrawals from remote locations, twenty-four hours a day.

atomic bomb A bomb that is powered by nuclear fission, and therefore produces a quick release of energy and great destruction.

backbone The primary line(s) that connects the slower, shorter cable portions of a communications network together. (See last mile.) In larger networks, such as the Internet, a backbone consists of high-capacity, high-speed lines that can extend over great distances.

bandwidth The amount of data that can be carried by a digital communication medium, often expressed in hertz. * Within the radio and microwave portions of the electromagnetic spectrum limited bandwidth is available, and in the United States the use of the spectrum is regulated and allocated by the FCC. (See VHF and UHF.)

bar code A series of parallel lines that can be read by an optical scanner and decoded by a computer into usable information. The ten-line Universal Product Code (UPC) on the packaging of retail items is an example of this. The key to this code is the variation in line thickness and separation.

bathyscaph (bath-i-skaf) A deep-sea research vessel that carries a crew and is free to maneuver independently.

battery A device that produces an electric current by harnessing the chemical reactions that take place within its cells.

baud rate A number related to the speed of data transmission in a system.


Excerpted from "The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" by E. D. Hirsch. Copyright © 2002 by E. D. Hirsch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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