All you need to know

 A drawing John Keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase circa 1819.

The great English poet John Keats caused a sensation when he ended his much-beloved “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with the couplet: 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In the four-and-a-half stanzas preceding those lines, Keats reveals how he reached that conclusion; the couplet is like the QED at the end of a math problem or a riddle from the Sphinx of Thebes.

Whatever exegeses literary enthusiasts have come up with over the years to decode the two-line cipher — and there have been many — one thing that has not changed is that the 18 words are a statement of “cultural literacy,” that is, Keats is telling us what knowledge people need to have in order to live in the world successfully, which involves sharing a language with others so conversations can occur without folks resorting to aggression or violence.   

In 1978, the great American poet Adrienne Rich came out with a book of poems titled “The Dream of a Common Language” which reflected her desire that someday there’d be a society where people would understand each other’s language well enough so as to avoid engaging in a continuous war of words: Word A would mean A and Word B would mean B, no more no less, as in 1 and 1 are always 2.

Culturally literate people are able to translate the metaphors others use and through that understanding create and maintain the common bond communities and societies need to stay alive, to evolve successfully — and communities and societies that lack such a bond do in fact fail.

The translating in question is a skill that can be learned but requires considerable practice in the same way that mastering French or Greek requires considerable practice. What is sad about America today is that so many Americans have given up on learning that skill—indeed downgrade its value—and thereby fail to add to the social capital that keeps America e pluribus unum.

In the same way that we call someone literate who can read and write — they know their way around the alphabet — we say someone is culturally literate who has the foundational knowledge of the culture he lives in and is able to respond to the tongues of others without feeling threatened and then compelled to start a war of words; to repeat: the culturally literate person is fluent in his own tongue as well as those of others, even subcultures that are diverse and abrasive and requiring great patience to understand and accept: Rich’s dream of a common language come true.

When the subject of cultural literacy arises, culturally literate people — pardonnez-moi — think right away of the American educator Eric “E. D.” Hirsch and his much-lauded “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” which came out in 1987. Underscore “What Every American Needs to Know;” it’s a tremendously bold imperative. Every American? And nowhere does Hirsch mention that Keats scooped him 168 years earlier.

Hirsch’s basic premise was/is: (1) “all human communities are founded upon specific shared information;” and (2) “culturally literate [people] possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world,” and by “modern world” he means the world a person is living in at the time. And, because there are so many cultures and subcultures, the culturally literate person is a kind of master linguist.

By using the word “thrive” Hirsch was more than implying that the culturally ill-literate person is ailing in some way — is sick — and needs to immerse himself in the ethical culture he’s living in to save his own soul.   

What made Hirsch’s work problematic is that the same year his book came out, there appeared the American classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which is another tremendously bold imperative. Bloom was saying America was slowly losing her mind.

Some readers interested in Bloom’s ideas started taking off the gloves as soon as they got to the subtitle of the book, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.”  

It’s one thing to say someone is failing democracy, it’s quite another to accuse him of demolishing the souls of the young and thereby lessening their chances of getting into heaven.  

One wonders what was in the water at the time because, as those two books were making their way to the best-seller list, William Bennett — the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan (1985-1988) — started accusing American educators of “dumbing down” what they were teaching kids, especially the “underserved.” It’s a form of cultural triage. 

The journal “American Speech,” which publishes articles on the origin of words and phrases, says that “dumbing down” was instituted “so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence” and that it was Hollywood moguls who led the charge by telling script writers and directors during the Great Depression to stop being “too subtle,” that dumbing down “saves time and wearying gestures.” And sells tickets!

Hirsch made a major error by providing at the end of his book a list of the “names, phrases, dates, and concepts every American should know” that ignited a culture war of sorts — some groups claiming that their names, phrases, dates, and concepts were not among the 5,000 Hirsch gave; they felt they were being relegated to the realm of non-American. Hirsch’s list can be viewed as cultural preparation for the SAT exam. 

Forgotten, or submerged, for years, “cultural literacy” came to the fore on Oct. 7 when Hamas slaughtered more than a thousand Israeli people and their associates and the Israeli government responded with (still-going-on) vengeful military strikes.

But what sparked a war of words at home was the statement the Graduate Students for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard, issued on Instagram the day after Hamas’s slaughter; it reads, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It was co-signed by more than 30 other organizations on the Harvard campus. The statement is like telling a woman who’d just been raped about the concept of “victim-precipitated rape.”

As the reverberations of the statement continue to be felt to this day, on Oct. 17 — nine days after the pro-Palestinian j’accuse appeared — the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, Ezekiel J. Emanuel — came out with an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “The Moral Deficiencies of a Liberal Education.”  

He said the pro-Palestinian ideologues at Harvard were able to get away with such a view because their professors — as with professors at American colleges and universities across the board — and by deduction teachers at secondary schools — had dumbed down the required lessons on the ethics and morality of social life.  

Emanuel said the American university system had failed, “to give them [the pro-Palestinian students at Harvard and similar-thinking souls] the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.” He was repeating Bloom’s warning that there were too many ill-literate Americans who could not speak to others without engaging in a war of words.

To pay some degree of homage to Emanuel’s concerns, I suggest that every university in the country require every incoming frosh to take a two-semester Civics 101 course where each student must satisfactorily be able to answer the questions: (1) what does it mean to be a moral person? (2) am I a moral person? (3) what is the payoff for being moral — the psychological and spiritual benefits?; and (4) if such a thing as a moral nation exists, does America fit the profile?

If Keats were alive today he’d say those questions sum up the beauty/truth cultural literacy imperative he laid out, that is, when a person becomes an ethically moral agent, he achieves a psychological and spiritual security that no attack of words or arms can turn him into a machine of revenge and retribution.

¡Les deseo a todos un Día de Acción de Gracias seguro y saludable!