Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Value of Cultural Knowledge

On this blog in the past I have written about the value of archives to society, but to treasure archives we must first recognize the importance historical knowledge in general. We must also understand how accurate historical knowledge is upheld by cultural heritage repositories. Why are our cultural heritage repositories continually under attack for funding? What can we do about it? Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation for our heritage, which can cause a casual, but often highly charged, denial of the fundamental value of understanding our past.

A few weeks ago I read an editorial in a local paper. I wish that I saved it so that I can quote it, but I have seen the sentiment in other places so I think I can paraphrase. There is a particular view that cultural repositories are "fluff." (I was going to write that "museums, libraries, and archives are fluff," but I think that many of these writers do not know what "archives" are. How can they possibly value them?) During difficult economic times, those who hold this point of view think that museums and libraries (and possibly archives) are the first that should be denied funding. These things are nice to have, but we don't need them to function as a society. However, this view is sadly misinformed. These institutions ARE necessary for us to properly function as a society, because they hold the truths that make us a "society" in the first place.

I am currently reading "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" by E.D. Hirsch Jr. This book, originally published in the 1980s, argues that kids "are not mentally prepared to continue the society because they basically do not understand the society well enough to value it." We have reached a critical point where these children of the 1980s are the adults making decisions today and they are misunderstanding the value of cultural institutions and heritage resources because they do not understand history. According to "Cultural Literacy, "Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information that the symbols represent, can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community." In other words, American citizens are not all on the same page. Some of us know our history. Some of us do not. Some know some of our history and others know other  parts of our history.  Many cannot identify the historical knowledge they do have as valuable because they do not understand the full context of that history in terms of how it influences our behaviors and decisions today. They do not recognize that repositories support our understanding of history and without them, truth and fiction are muddled.

I am reading another book with my young daughter. It is a children's book called "The Raucous Royals" and discusses historical rumors, exploring how rumors get started and if particular rumors that have pervaded historical knowledge have any basis in fact. The book begins, "Dear Reader, Once rumor is born, it never truly dies." I have used our reading together as a way to develop my daughter's critical thinking skills. One of the group of rumors examined relates to Richard III of England., It discusses how he is suspected of killing his nephews to get to the thrown. It also discusses how over time, Richard was portrayed as a hunchback with a withered arm. My daughter learned that Shakespeare wrote about Richard and based his writing on a biography by Thomas More, which was written after Richard's death. I asked my daughter if these writings were accurately portraying Richard. I asked if they were even trying to accurately portray Richard. Later in the book we learned about Henry VIII's eating habits. We learned that the king would often eat 4,500-5,000 calories for dinner. A menu of the foods he would serve for the meal was included for illustration. I asked my daughter if this was more accurate than the Richard III info. She said yes and I asked why. What is that menu? Where would they get that information? A small smile lit her face and she said, ARCHIVES!"

Today, it often seems to me that rumor is taken as fact without examining its context. Much of the information we believe and the growing amount of misinformation we see spread by media and politicians is not given an historical context. "I heard it so it must be true" is not good enough. Our cultural institutions, including the knowledge they hold and have the capacity to share, can level the playing field and give all of our citizens a common foundation of knowledge, cementing a national identity based in reality. Whether or not we agree on all issues is less vituperative when we know that we all have a common understanding of fact and hence of common cultural values. Cultural institutions hold the shared symbols to which E.D. Hirsch refers.They are part of the foundation that helps our citizens understand our society well enough to value it. Without the institutions, our sense of self is perverted and the glue that holds us together as a nation with a common identity falls apart.


  1. Seems like when I focus on a topic it starts showing up everywhere! I just heard Howard Gardner on NPR. Fascinating talk about Cultural Literacy. I'm going to check out his writings. His latest is: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century

  2. Good words about The Value of Cultural Knowledge.... i like your words because in your words there is a truth.....