In class, it was interesting to step into the philosophical land of literature, merging two interests of mine together into a class discussion that left me feeling more than a little dazed and lost as I drove home afterward. The world felt surreal after, contemplating the power of language and therefore the power of literature itself while hurtling down the highway toward home. I thought of home and I thought of what home meant, and “home” is a word that I feel has an incredibly variable truth from person to person. Just thinking of the wide spectrum of definition when relating to the topic of “home” left me reeling.
But in class, one particular statement caught and held me, replaying in my head throughout my honestly fumbling contemplations. “We can’t know the world outside of language,” I heard, and something lit in me that had me hooked on the idea. I thought of the allegory of the cave, of course, of blind folk facing a strange world and making up names to understand the things they see, creating concepts in order to form a structure of understanding and therefore a basis of comfort and contentment. Without order, there is not only chaos, but anxiety. Language becomes our system of order, our means of compartmentalizing and organization, creating definitions that may shift and change but generally maintain the concept necessary in order to fit things into that definition.
(Except, of course, when it comes to those who like to watch the world burn and decide to mess with definition, but that is another thing entirely.)
A world without these necessary definitions seems as though it might collapse, and the idea can be terrifying. Imagine looking to a chair and one person says ‘horse’ and another says ‘brown’ and another says ‘strength’ and in some way they’re all right and all wrong at the same time, because of the lack of agreement for definition.
Thinking on this had me thinking further on prior topics. We cannot know the world outside of language, but I found myself wondering if we could know the world outside of literacy? It seemed that cultural literacy has become yet another fiery topic, one of heated discussion as to what it is, what importance it holds, how one gets it, and who is in the best position to have it. It certainly presents itself as a next layer to the discussion of what language is – we cannot have literacy without language – and I found myself facing the same contemplations as I considered. Can we know the world outside of literacy? We may have definitions for things, but what are those definitions without context? Can we know what a horse is, as a creature to be ridden, without having the literacy to know about riding?
We find ourselves facing a world of chaos and disorganization without language, and I believe we face the same without literacy. We can know words, but they mean little to us without literacy to back up the definitions. In class, we discussed the prevalence of cultural narratives in our lives, from court rooms to economics to religion to pop culture, holidays, commercials, even the animal kingdom. As well, the text we read presents one of the main concepts of Mink as us understanding a narrative by the meaning built into words by the intersection of reader, writer, and text. Cultural narratives flood our lives and even formulate our selves, memories defining our experience and memories being a form of cultural narrative. Our worlds are built on narrative and those narratives falter and crumble in the face of one being without literacy.
I find myself harkening back to the importance of sharing cultural literacy. We risk leaving one another in the dark to our own cultural narratives, to one another’s cultural narratives, without sharing that literacy with one another. Hirsch gives us a list that he feels every literate American should know, but even that list falters in the face of shifting definition – I still don’t know what it means to be fully culturally literate and I’m sure that I never will – but the fact remains that there are things that should be known in order for one to understand the cultural narrative of self and of those around the self. Without that knowledge, we find ourselves in a world of disorganized chaos and loss, trying to piece together a narrative from half-formed and half-filled out definitions, definitions without context. Cultural literacy provides a full narrative – those who struggle to find cultural literacy find themselves trapped in reading the abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry with the metaphors replaced by statements of the obvious.
I find myself standing by my believe that cultural literacy should be shared. It should be given when asked for, for the enrichment of the planet as a whole. There are those who will say it is a bore or it is not their job to lecture or educate, but it could be as simple as letting someone borrow a book or a computer. Directing them to a library. Showing them to a person willing to answer questions. Not every conversation needs to be an act of education, but I also feel that a conversation including education could prove to be an enlightening experience – often, one can learn even more through the act of sharing knowledge. The social world aches for the people in it to understand the narrative, instead of the majority fumbling in the dark to find the plot, and those who have glimpses, I feel, should share those glimpses with others.
Cultural literacy looms as the next step above understanding language. Through understanding language, we understand the world, ourselves, those around us. Through attaining cultural literacy, we understand our narrative, finding new meaning in our language and stepping into the world with more on our minds. When we know more, we do more, we accomplish more. Share the more and help save others from abridged texts, from cultural loss, and from losing their own narrative.