A Common American Vocabulary?

American vocabularyWhat is the shared cultural core of America? Eric Liu makes the argument for a shared national or American vocabulary and understanding of the basics of the nation’s history in this essay for Democracy.

Liu is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Program on Citizenship and American Identity and founder of Citizen University. In his piece, he refer to E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s book Cultural Literacy, published in 1987, which included a list of 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts every American should know. Because the list revolved around “dead white men,” some embraced it as defending the true history of the nation and used it to discredit the growing idea of multiculturalism.

Such attitudes couldn’t have been further from Hirsch’s motivation behind creating the list. He believed that promoting cultural literacy among the nation’s poor and disenfranchised populations would help them because more engaged in civic life and increase social justice and equality. In his essay, Liu says Hirsch was right, but that today we need a different list.

A generation of hindsight now enables us to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols.

Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity. If it isn’t drastically more inclusive and empowering, what takes the place of whiteness may not in fact be progress. It may be drift and slow disunion. …

The more serious challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.

Liu’s piece examines Hirsch’s list, proposes how we could make a new list today, and gives you the chance to contribute. At the end of the piece, you can list ten items you think every 21st century American should know.

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