The Evolution of Cultural Literacy

In today’s multi-cultural world, what does being culturally literate look like? The concept of cultural literacy has certainly evolved since E.D. Hirsch’s controversial 1989 book Cultural Literacy. Hirsch connected a stagnation in literacy rates to a lack of national cultural context in education. Rather than promoting a sense of acculturation, the concept of cultural literacy has now progressed to include learning the skills to navigate differences in cultures.

“What we can do is teach our students how to understand cultural differences, and how to draw meaning from them, the skills and knowledge necessary to approach the unfamiliar without trepidation.” – Gabriel García Ochoa and Sarah McDonald

Cultural literacy includes basic knowledge from the dominant culture needed to participate in society, such as traditions, history and idioms. It also includes the skills needed to understand and learn from other cultures.

“Cultural literacy means being able to understand the traditions, regular activities and history of a group of people from a given culture.” – ABC Life Literacy Canada

ABC Life Literacy Canada has outlined three benefits to cultural literacy:

  1. increases cultural awareness and sensitivity, especially if you are a part of the dominant culture
  2. helps develop the skills of self-reflection and communication
  3. has the societal benefits of reducing prejudice and inequality, increasing the value placed on diversity, and increasing participation in social practices

Participating in cultural activities can improve cultural literacy. These activities can include visiting museums and galleries, participating in community events and programs or attending performances.

Cultural literacy has evolved from the term first coined by Hirsch. In the modern sense of the concept, cultural literacy allows for broader perspectives, better understanding and also a deeper sense of self. To learn more about cultural literacy, read through the resources included below.


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