Cultural literacy (noun) is defined as “knowledge of and ability to discuss the history of and major concepts underlying a culture, particularly one’s own and those of one’s peers.” (Source: Wiktionary)
It also means the ability to understand the idioms, allusions, and informal content that create and constitute a dominant culture—from being familiar with streets signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang.
Pope Francis recently (July 30, 2016) peppered his speech with contemporary lingo. He addressed his eager audience by telling the young people not to vegetate, not to take it easy, and not to make their lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. In other words: “Don’t be a couch potato.” (Source: The Associated Press)
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., said, “…Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.”
A culturally literate person does not have to be told to stop playing “Pokemon Go” in the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. This memorial is dedicated to the victims of Nazism, and playing such a game is extremely inappropriate.
A culturally literate person would be offended by what Wendy Williams (“The Wendy Williams Show”) recently said. She found herself at the center of a furor after saying she doesn’t believe in the NAACP or historically black colleges because there is no “white” equivalent. She quickly apologized for the remarks and got a history lesson (“lektsye”) from journalist, Roland Martin.
Martin told her: “When it comes to our colleges, we couldn’t go to those schools. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t read during slavery (“shklaferay”). You could be killed if you were found to be reading. So, that’s why it is so critically important…our institutions are allowing us to survive in America even though we built this country.”
At times, Donald Trump also appears to be lacking cultural
MJ Lee (CNN Politics and Finance reporter, wrote [12/25/15]: “At Yiddish Festival, Trump’s name is ‘blote’ (mud).”
Attendees at the Yiddish New York cultural event held at the 14th Street YMHA, had choice words—in English and Yiddish—for Trump’s use of the word “shlonged” on the campaign trail. Miriam Isaacs, a Yiddish professor and linguist, said, “Everything he says is disgusting, and he intends to be disgusting.”
Perhaps trump didn’t understand the meaning of “schlong.” It is derived from the German word “schlange,” meaning snake or serpent. In Yiddish it is interpreted as slang for a man’s penis.
Trump insisted on Twitter that “schlonged” is not vulgar. And Avia Moore said, “Yiddish is an immigrant language in the United States, right,” she wrote. “Why is he as an anti-immigration candidate, using words that come from an immigration culture (‘kultur’)?”
“Er vest fun bobkes?” (He really knows nothing. Or, He (only) knows about beans.)
Some American phrases do not translate well. Ex. “We shall see” means ‘No’ in China.
“Flying by the seat of our pants” or “Ballpark figure” may not have any meaning at all in other cultures. The language of one’s home office may not be universal.
Foreigners many not know what is meant by the “64,000 dollar question,” which is derived from the U. S. quiz game.
And some may not understand the newspaper editorial/advertising term, “Above The Fold.” Today it has been adopted and adapted for use in internet terminology, where it refers to the upper section of a webpage that is viewable without scrolling down the page. “Above the fold” is therefore a reference to the best (most read) position in online printed media such that it commands highest demand/prices for editorial/advertising.
And the term “Apple Box”—used in TV, etc.— refers to the wooden boxes of various sizes, which are used to elevate actors and celebrities.
This brings me to a study conducted by Richard P. Vance, Brooke A. Saladin, Robert W. Prichard and Peter R. Peacock and published in Business Horizons. The researchers asked ninety-six first-year graduate students at Wake Forest University’s Babcock Graduate School of Management to define 250 terms taken from E. D. Hirsch’s “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.”
The study found that students are able to CORRECTLY define only 17.2 percent of the terms. The authors teach at Wake Forest. Below is a selection of INCORRECT (“nit rikhtik”) answers.
Acrophobia: fear of acronyms
Actuary: a home for birds
Annunciation: to speak clearly
Aaron Burr: Perry Mason
Cellulose: fat deposits
Duodenum: a number system in base 2
Ramadan: Jewish holiday
Stradivarius: as in “Rex”
Xylem: as in “insane”
(Sources: Harper’s magazine, Readings, April 1993;
Business Horizons, September-October 1992)
So, what’s the bottom line___“die untershte shure”? Perhaps our educational system focuses too much on acquiring skills and not enough on facts. The authors of “The Cultural Literacy of Graduate Management Students” conclude by saying, “We believe that the business education community ought to demand that our educational process produce more culturally literate students.”
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is a retired business educator.
She taught Business Education in Plainview, New York, for 35 years.
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