I have to say I don’t recall ever hearing this phrase until a few days ago. I understand literacy to mean able to read and write. It could also encompass being knowledgable. In my mind, a person does not need to be formally educated to be literate.
But then “culture” is added and it changes things for me. Culture immediately takes me to great works of art or literature. Classical music is part of culture, or being cultured. Culture elevates the phrase to a high brow, goal setting, read more, finally learn Italian, level. “Culture” paired with basic “literacy” is slightly intimidating on the surface, but it turns out it’s not at all.
I was listening to something the other day. Alright fine, it was another episode of Grammar Girl’s podcast. She was talking about how she was reluctant to read The Cuckoo’s Calling, but she gave in and started reading it. She then stated, “With books like this, I often think it’s important to read it just to be culturally literate because everybody else is reading it.”
Wait…what? It means doing things because everyone else is doing it? Cultural literacy has nothing to do with learning Italian or figuring out what the heck is really going on in The Iliad? I Googled, which in and of itself makes me culturally literate, and found out that “culture” in this case refers to “a society or a people” and “cultural literacy” is the ability to understand underlying meanings or references based on a popular common knowledge.
So, knowing that Robert Galbraith, the author of The Cuckoo Calling, is really JK Rowling or that “no soup for you” is a Seinfeld reference must make me culturally literate. We are not talking about the culture of yesterday, we simply need to know what is popular, read, seen and discussed, in mass within our society.
Does that mean if I’m at a dinner party and someone makes reference to her “inner goddess” that I should admit to knowing she is referencing 50 Shades of Grey? (Yes, yes, I read it.) Does knowledge of it make me culturally literate, or just a “follower” that read a super bad book? Does knowing what “twerking” is or what it means if someone is a “Gleek” also make me culturally literate? And more importantly, if a person doesn’t get these references, if Casey Anthony is just another name, is that person a cultural illiterate? That seems insane.
Maybe the answer is determined by the crowd or “culture” a person is born into or chooses to let into their life. Culturally literate could mean a very different thing to a person surrounded by educated, artistic or influential people, right? Then why does the President of the United States know and reference Honey Boo Boo? Why wouldn’t Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan be relegated to People Magazine subscribers instead of being invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?
It’s so confusing. Maybe I’ll just stick with being happy I’m literate.
My thoughts from the laundry room. Keep Up on Your Sleep.