Friday, November 23, 2007

Cultural Literacy

I taught special education in public and private U.S. schools for fifteen years and during that time probably gave fifteen hundred tests. A phrase I came across, again and again, was “cultural literacy.” There were, and are, facts, figures, fantasies, questioned on basic skills tests, i.e.; I.Q. tests, PSATs SATs, and even GREs exams for children and young adults. What do we mean by “the cradle of civilization,” Victorian society, and who were James Joyce, Horatio Alger, Daffy Duck, and Marie Curie? Who was Al Capone? These are the sorts of things we wish a college graduate to know, it seems. in addition to quantum physics or fluency in Arabic.

When I was a seventh grader in a parochial elementary school in suburban New Jersey, I took one of these tests, and my reading score was the same as a sophomore in college. I did not skip any grades. I had not been brought up traveling the world, and I certainly was no genius. But I grew up in an atmosphere of conversation about current events, fiction and non-fiction reading, and parental regard and encouragement. Wherever our interests lead us, within reasonable parameters, my mom and dad urged us (three brothers and myself) to journey.

Life magazine’s arrival by mail every week was an important happening in our household, possibly eclipsed by the monthly appearance of National Geographic. Ed Sullivan was “must see T.V.” and I’ll never forget my father’s laughter over Sid Ceasar and his Show of Shows. We had Rod Serling and we had the yearly showing of The Wizard of Oz and Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. There were also nights devoted to reading, homework, and or discussion, and everyone in the family, including my mother and father, were involved in these activities.

I’ve already written in The Linnet about my Nonnie, and her fabulous treasure trove of fairytales, nursery rhymes and songs, but there were also uncles, (Jerry was a soft-shoe dancer), aunts, cousins, my other grandparents, and my brothers, their friends, and of course my friends who shared what they knew in a mysterious carousel of knowledge. There was my ballet teacher. My father painted in oils. My mother took me to plays. Everyone, everyone read. And, yes, everyone talked about what they read.

Have I mentioned school yet? Not very much, have I? Hmmmm. Could it be cultural literacy, even then, had little to do with school and everything to do with family? The first volume of The Great English Poets didn’t sit among the picture books on my second grade classroom bookshelf. It sat in our living room. In a bookcase right next to the television.

1 comment:

Donia said...

Nonnie, this is great. Your family life is presented so well but, frankly, it makes me envious; it sounds so idyllic. Beautifully written.