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Definition: Cultural literacy from The AMA Dictionary of Business and Management

Familiarity with the cultural values, norms, mores, and traditions of a country that is not native. It is the first step toward developing empathy for and tolerance of diversity, and a means of avoiding prejudice and Xenophobia.


Summary Article: Cultural Literacy from Encyclopedia of Human Services & Diversity

Cultural literacy is a concept that individuals with an awareness of and the capacity to comprehend the History, slang, symbols, and customs that construct and organize a dominant culture will be better able to communicate with one another. This form of literacy asks that individuals have a body of shared knowledge, have an understanding of the historical context of a text or an image, know common symbols, can identify the meaning of common words or phrases, and can grasp common literary or cultural references. To be culturally literate and understand the History, biography, references, and symbols, one must interact with the culture.

Knowledge of a prescribed canon of facts and ideas is not adequate; rather, an individual becomes more culturally literate when engaging with others in the culture and reflecting upon ideas of expression, experience, and connections that Many in the culture share. To be culturally literate necessitates familiarity with foundational general knowledge and assumes the use of that information in the creation of a common language and collective awareness of the world. When people know about and appreciate culture and History, their own and others, this cultural literacy impacts behaviors and beliefs in a multicultural world.

E. D. Hirsch Jr. wrote that Americans needed a body of common knowledge to understand and communicate with each other. This common knowledge would allow them to perform as fully formed citizens in a democracy. His writing on critical literacy is founded on the idea that a literate society depends upon shared information, and that schooling students to have a common core of information would ultimately create a more informed and active society. The contextualization of a shared History gives students a place to learn facts about a common culture. Hirsh thought that knowing words depends on knowing cultural realities and the experiences to which the words refer. by having a common core of knowledge, people can understand the symbols, references, and contexts as they try to communicate with one another.

Why Care About Cultural Literacy?

Having a core of information to refer to helps people think, reason, and problem-solve in real time. Instead of having to try to understand the nuances of an example, the individual can work on creating a solution to the problem. It is hard to solve problems, whether they are posed on a test or experienced in daily life, if one does not have some information that one can draw on to understand the issue. Having some baseline information about the dominant culture in which one lives, whether one is part of that culture or not, is useful to navigating society. A person's comprehension of information, whether written, visual, or auditory, Directly depends on whether or not the individual has relevant knowledge of the subject at their direct disposal.

For example, if one is having a conversation with coworkers about last night's major televised sporting event, even if one does not follow the teams or even the sport discussed, having basic knowledge of the rules of the game and the interest level of the coworkers would help one to navigate the shared conversation. Similarly, if one is reading an article and someone is described as “quixotic,” one would benefit from having some knowledge of the 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. Knowing something of the main character of that novel will help one contextualize the description of another person as “quixotic.” In this way, cultural literacy assumes a common reader. A common reader is someone who is literate and shares a common set of knowledge and relevant associations with the writer. In this way, the person who describes a character as “quixotic” assumes that whoever is reading their work will have some connection to the novel Don Quixote, even if they have not read the book. If the reader and writer do not share the common link of Don Quixote, some of the nuance and context of the writing may be lost.

What Does Cultural Literacy Do?

Cultural literacy provides a foundation for common knowledge. When interacting with others, writing for an unseen audience, or meeting new people, having a common base of knowledge provides shortcuts to mutual understanding. Being culturally literate offers a way for individuals to deal with technological society. People must know how to interact with each other in person, but also online, through e-mail, and when videoconferencing. Mores, customs, and values often do not change as fast as technology, so one must employ cultural literacy to adapt to change. Cultural literacy is important in communication. Whether in person or using technology to communicate, one must be aware that people use more than words to express themselves and understand others. Being able to connect to common History, symbols, and ideas can enhance communication with others. Being culturally literate, in the most basic sense, allows one to more fully participate in public life. When people try to understand each other, they can come together to know the world much better.

Criticisms of Cultural Literacy

There are criticisms of Hirsh's view of cultural literacy. The foundation of his writings on cultural literacy relies on everyone learning discreet facts out of context. There are some that call this indoctrination, instead of literacy. Literacy is not achieved by listing facts. Rather, people need to be able to place ideas and facts in the context of their lived experiences. Learning is also about more than learning facts, but people learn as they experience the world and reflect on it. When cultural literacy is determined or evaluated more on what facts people know, rather than how they integrate facts into their lives, then the decontexualization of knowledge is centered, as opposed to really making connections with the people.

There are also questions about what decisions are made for inclusion into common core knowledge. One must ask questions about who decides what form of knowledge, culture, History, authority, and point of view is deemed normative. One must understand who will compile and teach this information, and be wary of a canon that tries to speak for all, but in reality merely replicates ideas of those in power. When one is not critical of where information comes from, one tends to obscure the ways that the power of making something normal hides the ways that it perpetuates racism and sexism. by forcing knowledge to comply to a seemingly value-neutral idea of common knowledge, the information is laden with what the dominant culture values, to the detriment of the diversity, creativity, and different ways of knowing that those who are different from oneself offer.

See Also: Cross-Cultural Knowledge; Cultural Competence, Human Service Providers and; Cultural Humility, Model of; Cultural Paradigms; Ethnic Diversity and Values

Further Readings
  • Murray, Denise E. Diversity as Resource: Redefining Cultural Literacy. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Alexandria VA, 1992.
  • Schweizer, Bernard.Cultural Literacy: Is it Time to Revisit the Debate?” Thought & Action, v. 25 (2009).
  • Sperry, L.Cultural Competence: Primer.” Journal of Individual Psychology, v. 68/4 (2012).
  • Sarah E. Colonna
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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