Hirsch’s List: History’s Dead White Men Are Both Relevant and Irrelevant

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Werner Heisenberg is taking his shiny new car out for a drive. Along the way he decides to pick up his buddy Erwin Schrödinger. They’re cruising the boulevard, not a care in the world when they see blue lights behind them. Heisenberg pulls to the curb, rolls down his window, and offers the approaching officer his license.

“Mr. Heisenberg,” says the cop, “know how fast you were going?”

“No sir,” replies Heisenberg, “but I know exactly where I am.”

An odd response, the officer thinks. “You were going 55 in a 35.”

Heisenberg sighs. “Well, now I’m lost.”

The cop thinks that’s a pretty weird response so he asks to have a look in the trunk. He walks behind the car, gasps and slams it shut again. Approaching the window once more, he asks, “Do you know you have a dead cat back there?”

Schrödinger throws his hands in the air in exasperation. “I do now, jerk!”

At this point you’re either scratching your head and wondering if I know what a joke is or you’re laughing hysterically. If, like me, you got it the first time,  you probably also said “Bazinga!” I’m no expert in theoretical physics, but I am a geek.

These cats taught me how to science.
Photo Credit: cbs.com

The joke is not only a rarity because it contains three separate punchlines, it also requires one to be familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s cat.

(Please note that the cat was a thought experiment. No animals were harmed in the making of the proposition. I couldn’t stomach it otherwise; I have a couple of little furballs of my own whom I cherish.)

Until you reach for your shirt, you are both scratched and unscratched.

Click on the links, familiarize yourself with the background information, then go back and read the joke. No, really, go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now it makes sense, huh, but how hard did you laugh? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you didn’t. Funny thing about jokes–no pun intended–is that when they have to be explained, they lose their humor.

Which, naturally, brings me to an 88-year-old education reformer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and white supremacy’s swan song. No, this time I’m not joking.

Last July Eric Liu published a disquisition in The Atlantic entitled “What Every American Should Know.” His lengthy intro discusses the ever-present, roiling culture wars gripping America. Drawing attention to the current discussions involving race relations, the Confederate flag and #BlackLivesMatter, Liu suggests once we “add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix,” we have ourselves a divide that is potential irreparable.

When discussing the culture wars in my classes, students are often tempted to make statements suggesting we are more divided than ever. To this I can only scratch my head and say “really?” There was a time we actually started lobbing bullets and cannonballs at our fellow Americans.

Also spiderwebs.
Photo credit: Marvel Entertainment

Nonetheless, we can all agree we are divided, and–if the comment sections of Facebook are any indication–that’s about all we can agree on. How can we dial back the culture wars? How can we find common ground with those we disagree with? How can we finally, utterly convince everyone that the damned toilet paper roll goes over, never under?

Call me biased, but I agree with Liu’s answer: education.

There is one teeny tiny problem, however. Education is right smack dab in the middle of the culture wars too.

Somewhere many years ago, educators, particularly in the field of history, came to a series of startling conclusions: not every historical figure worth studying is white, the U.S. sort of did some nasty things on our journey to the top of the global food chain, and–perhaps most jaw-dropping–women are people too.

We all remember units on Black History in February, which only seemed fair considering we have 12 White History Months. Textbooks often pause and offer cut-out sections specifically dealing with the role of women, blacks, Asian Americans, Latinos, etc. in any given historical framework.

In my Early American Literature course, I start out by asking the class a simple question: “Who discovered America?” They’re quick on the response.

“In 1492, Colum–”

BAAAAANK! Try again.”

Some intrepid, overachieving student will raise her hand and say: “Actually, in the 11th century Lief Erickson and the Vik–”


It’s not their fault; we failed them at the secondary level. The claim that someone “discovers” a continent already teeming with millions of people implicitly suggests that history only begins when a white dude sets foot on the soil.

Speaking of that Columbus fellow, he has a national holiday in his honor. A South American country is named after him. The C in our D.C. too. Try to find me a state that doesn’t have a city named “Columbus” or “Columbia.” I’ve even floated on the Columbia River in Oregon because, you know, ol’ Chris certainly made it that far North.

Another little known fact: he wasn’t really a nice guy. I may or may not refer to him as a “genocidal maniac” in my courses. (I do.)

Couple that with reneging on treaties, small-pox-laden blankets, the Trail of Tears, and it becomes clear that our nation’s founding and emergence has a few questionable moments. This is without even mentioning slavery, which I do, at great length. In short, almost half the course consists of bringing to light atrocities carried out by men celebrated as heroes.

I don’t do this because I hate America. I love this nation. Still, I refuse to ignore the bad parts. In fact, I deliberately highlight them. The reasoning is two-fold. 1. Facts are facts, and one shouldn’t shirk them because they are unpleasant. 2. I hope we can learn from our mistakes.

For instance, in 2016, we would never do something so foolish as to forcibly run an oil pipeline through sacred Sioux land. Nah, we learned our lesson.

Upon its inception, this reformation of history ran afoul of some of the more conservative thinkers. They argued that American history should be celebratory not critical. Otherwise, we would breed an entire generation of American-hating malcontents.

And in stepped a mild-mannered academician named E. D. Hirsch. Hirsch argued that America need a common set of referents and allusions, a shorthand we could speak in order to inundate our dialogue with layers of meaning. “The author takes for granted that his readers have crucial background knowledge,” he writes in his ground-breaking book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

Upon purely anecdotal evidence, I can attest to his salience. My first-year students do not arrive properly prepared for college. Make a reference to Hamlet, might as well be speaking Urdu. Enter into a discussion of economic inequality and say something like, “not that we should be going back to 1789 …” and I could just as easily have said 1643 or 2358 or 3000 BCE (not that many know what BCE is).

Each time I have to stop and explain context, I not only burn valuable class time, I also lose the oomph of my allusion. It’s akin to having to stop and explain a joke: all that build-up and the punchline falls flat. In short, the idea Hirsch’s list is downright genius. The 5,000 entries he places in his appendix, not so much.

Enlisting the help of two colleagues, Joseph K. Kett and James Trefil, they expanded on the list and defined each entry. A year later, 1988, the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy was published. In 1993 it was updated. The most recent edition came out in 2002.

The conservative education pundits rejoiced. Here was a list that was whiter than the checkout line at Whole Foods, more male-dominated than UFC night at Buffalo Wild Wings. Once again, we could celebrate the Eurocentric accomplishments of the ages!

By contrast, the progressive reformers immediately denounced Hirsch, Kett and Trefil. How could three old, white guys possibly capture the incredible diversity and scope of American knowledge? Upon reading the book, Paolo Freire‘s head exploded. Or maybe he died of heart failure a decade later. Biographers are still debating. What was certain was this was about as nakedly regressive a pedagogy as the last few years had seen.

No one bothered to notice that Hirsch himself was a progressive. His argument was that if the culturally disempowered wanted to enact change, it still had to speak the language of power. The dead white guy curriculum would allow those who lacked a voice to work spur reform from the inside. It’s unfair, but those in power control the dialogue. One has to adopt their brogue to get a place in the discussion.

That’s a clunky way to express it. Maybe I should get some help from a veteran speechwriter. Liu states, “Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power. And so any endeavor that makes it easier for those who do not know the memes and themes of American civic life to attain them closes the opportunity gap. It is inherently progressive.”

In other words, we have to know a little bit about the old guard before we can go on to accept the new. Even Hirsch’s 14-year-old list needs revamping, but we don’t need to shred the entire document. Some things must remain.

At the same time, to ease the tensions within the culture and pay homage to the rich, diverse confluence of cultures that is America, we need to make new items. And we need to hear from all groups: whites and people of color, gays and straights, men and women, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Liu suggests we could crowdsource the entries. In the most democratic way possible, we could allow anyone with internet access and the hankering to do so suggest 10 items to the ceaselessly expanding list. From there would could debate the merits of each and decide what should remain and what could go. He even created a website to do just that.

Not a semester goes by that I don’t encourage my students to make their voice heard, to form their own list of 10 and upload them to the site, to browse what others think are important. I have mine.

  1. Monica Lewinsky
  2. Harry Potter
  3. Social Media
  4. Citizens United
  5. The Tea Party
  6. La Raza
  7. Reality TV
  8. ISIL
  9. Tupac Shakur
  10. Income Inequality

Clearly, the list is far from complete. No one’s will be. What this exercise does, however, is dig into the heart of two burning questions.

The first is simple: What does it mean to be an American? We’re a melting pot. We boast a wide variety of ethnicity. People here worship God, god, Allah, nature, nothing, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and many more deities.

We’ve also got a lot of square footage. Travel outside Alabama sometime. Visit New York then Massachusetts (just don’t try to spell it), Illinois then Texas. Try California, Washington, Alaska. Everything from the manner of speaking to social norms to the cuisine is drastically different. Yet all of them are Americans.

The list will never be complete, nor will it answer the aforementioned question. What it will do is give us some ideas. Hopefully, it will also allow us to understand and appreciate different mindsets of different cultures. And, luckily, understanding and appreciation make it easier to find common ground with those we disagree with. The list has the potential to quell the culture wars. I hope.

The other question:

How in the hell did Schrödinger get our college’s mascot in a box?


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