In his book ‘Cultural Literacy, What Every American Should Know’ ED Hirsch writes that:
The complex undertakings of modern life depend on the cooperation of many people with different specialties in different places. When communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel).
I’ve been puzzling over this because as far as I’m aware this isn’t the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech…
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth…
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech
From there the Lord scattered the people and ensured that they did not ‘understand one another’s speech’. What is the moral? Isn’t it that what failed here was man being ‘one’: having one culture and one language? The great cultural policy that was the Tower of Babel was one in which man assigned himself to reach unto a place in heaven whilst on earth, a place in which there would be no restraint on man, a place of ultimate power, indeed that man would be equal or, heaven forfend, more equal than God. Clearly our jealous Lord didn’t like this so He destroyed the tower and set about scattering mankind and confounding our language. It wasn’t communication failing that caused the downfall of Babel. In modern parlance Babel was ‘on message’ and all were ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’; they felt that they were ‘unrestrained’ and nothing could stop them! Oh the arrogance but when Babel played God, God confounded the hubris. It would be quite a paradox if Hirsch were to use a Biblical tale as a pivotal example in his book to justify Cultural Literacy but use it in a culturally illiterate way…
Hirsch wrote that:
Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents… My aim is to contribute to making that information the possession of all Americans… Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community.
[Cultural literacy] is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension… relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they have read.
In this Hirsch is akin to the biblical Nimrod beginning his tower of Cultural Literacy. The story of Babel is a warning against the undertaking that Hirsch wishes to take on. Hirsch’s goal is an instrumental one ensuring that all will be able to be better people by having access to knowing the same stuff. This is delivery of a promised people, homogeneously educated, in which all will be able to join the elite. Hirsch’s American Babel is based on a ‘coherent system of fundamental values and principals’, though ‘tolerant of diversity,’ it enables cultural change to take place in a way that is conservative as to its ‘glacial slowness’. This seems to belong to a Statist view in which ‘we know best’ what is good for you – the type of politics that insists on top down measures such as the Common Core or The National Curriculum.
How conservative would this seem to the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott? I wager he would see this as too much of a pursuit of a utopian vision, he preferred an unfixed, ever changing world governed by habits through interactions with others, adventures, conversations, a tradition in which: “There is a freedom and inventiveness at the heart.” Habits are always evolving in which no tradition: “Ever remains fixed; its history is one of continuous change… But it is not deliberate, controlled, directed change…” He resists the ideologues who once they have hit on a right way of doing things set it in stone because they know best. Oakeshott denigrated education as socialisation, complaining about its functionality. He railed against extrinsic motivations to systematise education to serve the needs of Babel. Education, to Oakeshott, sees ‘newcomers initiated into the world which they are to inhabit…’
This is a world of understandings, imaginings, meanings, moral and religious beliefs, relationships, practices – states of mind in which the human condition is to be discerned… Thus, an educational engagement is at once a discipline and a release… when to teach is identified with socialisation, education becomes the engagement to teach nothing.
Notice the use of the plural – understandings, imaginings… these are cultural literacies through which we discern our very humanity and rather than have a common culture imposed through school it is established and reestablished through initiation into an intellectual adventure that is bound by our cultural inheritance(s) with which young people become conversant, adding to the inheritance and not restricted by the idea of it having a utilitarian or utopian purpose. Because, like it or not, we are part of society whether society likes it or not.
Oakeshott would be against the Common Core and the National Curriculum, rather a curriculum that is diverse built through continuing conversations through a tradition we inherit and pass on. Part of this tradition is how we do things here, we do not build Towers of Babel for we are not arrogant enough to be Gods who pretend to know what every person needs to know.
As Noel O’Sullivan puts it: “The education in question is not a matter of training; it is, rather, a matter of critical induction into the on-going tradition of self-interpretation which constitutes a society’s culture.” This ongoing tradition is not stable it embraces flux that is kept in check by tradition, change here is not revolutionary, it is organic and the best way to engender this in schools is to have teachers in conversation deciding what to teach, deciding how to bring in critical voices where important and being prepared to initiate and then engage with their pupils in the conversation that continues throughout the ages. These conversations should be organised through the tradition of subjects and a pupil should be initiated into an understanding of a wide range of different voices through these subjects. The voices should be drawn from teachers’ current thinking as to what was and is the best that has been thought, said and done in their subjects and pupils should be inculcated in a way that allows them to absorb, argue, pass on and add to the best that has been thought said and done. There also needs to be a way that students can bring together these voices and bring in their own voices, conversationally, a space in which to make a sense of things. This will enable students to be truly culturally literate because this would be a curriculum that is not imposed by those in the Elysian fields.