A friend of mine recently remarked that her 16-year old was frustrated by having to read The Scarlet Letter and other works of classic literature being pushed at him in his high school English class. She’s helping him stick to it, observing that since he wants to go to a good college, he’s just going to have to do it.
Many of you have seen the moment in Glenn Beck’s interview with Sarah Palin where she struggles to name any of the Founding Fathers. Like many other teachers (or former students) I recognize the initial bullshitting in that video clip (“I like all of them!”) for a stalling tactic and as a revelation of an underlying ignorance.
What more than a few commenters still don’t seem to understand about that moment, however, is why it endears Sarah Palin to many viewers, and maybe even rouses some sympathy in people who otherwise reject her.
There are a lot of Americans who themselves wonder why they need to know who the Founding Fathers were, or why The Scarlet Letter matters.
The ramrod forms of authority that simply replied “Because I said so” and had the power to enforce that authority have dissipated, stabbed to death by a thousand tiny cuts from Animal House to Paolo Friere. Good riddance. The problem is, however, that educators haven’t arrived at a substitute rationale that’s both persuasive and pervasive.
So the substance of older educational regimes still shambles its undead way through K-12 schooling across the country, sometimes joined by newer projects and content which is equally shorn of a persuasive justification. So maybe a kid has to learn the Founding Fathers and learn about Sacagawea, but it’s not as if the latter knowledge speaks for its own importance more than the former.
So later on a lot of Americans get along perfectly well in life having forgotten all of what they had droned at them until age 18, or if they went to college, probably most of what they had droned at them until age 21.
If they get reminded of what they’ve forgotten, it’s probably because some asshole who remembers it all chooses to rub their nose in what they don’t know. Or–and here’s where the really key issue comes in–because they come up against a chalkboard ceiling in their working lives, where a promotion or other advancement is tied first to some educational credential but more crucially to the possession of cultural capital. To take the next step, to aspire, they suddenly need to know all those things, to have that set of references, but not because that knowledge is immediately functional to the job or skill. Or so it might seem from the perspective of ressentiment precisely because of the lack of a persuasive logic for why any of that knowledge matters.
That’s a picture straight out of Bourdieu, I know, and I don’t mean to remain that reductive about this issue. But that’s where we have to start in untangling this whole repeated moment in American public life (and it’s stunning to me that so many thinkers on the left seem to need a reminder about this reference point).
So as it stands, the kids who read Hawthorne or study American history with something more than the attitude of a convict breaking rocks in the penal yard are kids who either embrace the need to preserve or acquire cultural capital or the even rarer kid who honestly develops a passion for the substance of literature or history or philosophy.
(I’m leaving out the sciences and mathematics here because I think they’re far more effective at making a socially persuasive case for their utility, if not for their higher philosophical value.)
If a family already has cultural capital and uses it, the only kids who really fight off jumping through the hoops are those determined to leave the social world of their upbringing. If a teenager has a fierce determination to be socially mobile, they’ll often see that acquiring cultural capital is part of that–and they may understand early on the kind of alienation that’s going to produce between themselves and their families. (For some, that might be the attraction).
For the kid who grudgingly accepts the need to maintain social standing by doing the required work, we typically do little to help that go beyond obligation. And so when someone says (even indirectly and dishonestly, as Palin does), “Why the hell should I have to know any of that shit?”, a small secret thrill of agreement springs to life. For the kid who accepts the need to do the same in order to climb the social ladder, much the same feeling may arise.
So what should we be saying to my friend’s son that helps him consent enthusiastically to reading Hawthorne, that brings him on board as a willing participant?
This is one place where conservative humanists simply fall flat on their faces, unable to tear themselves away from constant petty whining about the Multiculti. What’s their persuasive vision of why classic works of literature or the core historical narratives matter? The best you’ll get from most of those critics is that a tightly prescribed canon is necessary for building a unified national identity. Leaving aside the underlying creepiness of that proposition for the moment, there’s certainly nothing persuasive about it for a 16-year old. “Read The Scarlet Letter so you can be a REAL AMERICAN, kid!” Yeah, that’ll do it. The only way to make this hook persuasive is to reacquire the harsh and unquestioned authority of official institutions of some largely imaginary yesteryear, and that’s not going to happen, nor should it.
Now, this is the rhetoric that Glenn Beck and other pundit-populists sling about the Founding Fathers and so on, and it was amusing to see the slight incredulity on Beck’s face when confronted with Palin’s stalling. He shouldn’t be surprised, though, because even for him, the Founders are totemic figures. What they actually said, the actuality of their times, the complexity of their thinking and action, is pretty much unimportant to him and many like him. In this sense, some of “classic” canon functions as an alternative form of cultural capital: where I say Mandela, you say John Adams, and so on. That approach merely mirrors the defects of mainstream elite approaches to cultural knowledge. At the Long Island cocktail party for middle managers, maybe you need to name-drop The Scarlet Letter when someone mentions how the mob is hounding investment bankers. At the Tea Party protest, you name-drop it when someone complains that their kid had to read Invisible Man in high school. In either case, the content of the novel doesn’t matter, it’s just a sign that you know the secret handshakes and belong in the clubhouse.
There are humanists who you might broadly call “conservative” who do a compelling job being persuasive about the generalized value of the real content of literature and history. Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, for example. And there are humanists who do the same in arguing for the generalized social value of multicultural or anti-canonical works and knowledge. I have some very strong criticisms of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, but it’s a good example of a work which takes seriously the need to persuade general readers of the importance of the knowledge it contains, rather than just resting on a sense of cultural obligation to know it.
So this would be the first way to undertake persuading a 16-year old to read The Scarlet Letter: to make a case for why it’s brilliant and important and exciting. There are those teachers in K-12 and higher education who succeed year after year after year in doing just that. But I think most of us would concede that they’re a very small minority and that most of what makes them persuasive is unique to them as individuals.
Could we generalize passion for literature or history in a way that would persuade more Americans to more consistently value their content? Train teachers to be passionate? I think so, but that has to start by picking the right foundation to stand upon. One of the reasons it’s hard to find a high school teacher who really catalyzes students to love The Scarlet Letter is that The Scarlet Letter is mostly unloveable to contemporary teenagers. Or maybe anybody. I re-read it a while back and while I totally concede its importance to American literary history, I would never read it again unless forced to. The language is remote and icy by contemporary standards, and most of the underlying situation of the characters equally so.
We throw a lot of classic works at kids that require a forty-year old’s emotional and intellectual experience to really click. Or we throw works and knowledge at them whose potency is only clearly visible in contextual relation to many other works. In a lot of cases, we do this because of the structural weight of past curricula, as a kind of cross-generational hazing. You’ll have to read Heart of Darkness, kid, because I had to.
The alternative is not work or material solely picked for its relevance and contemporaneity. We don’t have to throw Catcher in the Rye overboard so that we can teach Twilight. (Though to be honest, I actually think those two examples are a lot closer in character than some might think.) It does take asking with an open mind and few prior assumptions why a particular work or historical era might be powerful or important or resonant to a broad range of people.
Distributing a passion for the content of literary and historical knowledge will take a much smarter selection of material than present convention allows. Getting there would require both left and right to disarm in the culture wars to a very significant extent, because neither of their vested projects tends to invest a lot of effort in closely reading texts for how compelling, exciting, or engaging they are, for teachability in this sense.
This is also a commitment that requires standing down from mandatory examinations to a very significant extent. “Teaching to the test” is the antithesis of persuading students right here and right now that a work of literature matters or that a particular historical era matters. There are people who can overcome that circuit break, but not many.
The other approach we could take to convincing my friend’s 16-year old is practicality, about arguing that cultural and social literacy is a tool that has genuine value in many kinds of work, that we don’t look for it just to keep the clubhouse door closed to the unwashed, but because it matters.
Contra The History Boys, I don’t think this approach is antagonistic to arguing for the human and personal value of humanistic knowledge, but neither is it the same as that argument. I tell students that I think studying African history can help anyone grapple with important and difficult questions about human experience, that there is a passionate encounter with meaning at the heart of that knowledge. But I’d also argue that you can learn about phenomena and systems that will give you a comparative insight, that you can generalize, and that this knowledge will have practical payoffs that I can’t anticipate or foresee but that I’m confident will exist.
I think many people, even Sarah Palin’s devotees, might concede under pressure that having a President who has a strong baseline knowledge about the world, about American history, about economics, and so on, is a good thing. Not because we necessarily want an executive who is himself or herself a policy wonk, but because it lets that executive make more judicious choices about what policies to approve or reject. Many of the worst policy disasters under Bush the Lesser can demonstrably be traced back to the bedrock fact that he was easy for his courtiers to manipulate because he didn’t have an independent knowledge of his own on many issues, just a kind of personal appraisal of his staff that appeared to mostly revolve around obsequious loyalty.
Making the case that humanistic knowledge pays off in a more generalized way is a bit harder. One way to begin to make that argument is not to upbraid publics for their ignorance but to appreciate what people already know and why they know it. That’s one of the underlying propositions in my Production of History course, which comes from insights I learned from my graduate advisor. There’s a lot of embedded knowledge already out there about history and culture. Much of it retreats when people feel they’re being interrogated or judged for what they don’t know.
There are some professions where the practical value of humanistic knowledge is obvious. You don’t have to convince an advertiser or a scriptwriter or a social worker that knowing something about culture, history and society has a payoff. (Though knowing too much is equally clearly a problem: that’s a subject for a separate column.)
The harder job is explaining to sales representative or fast food manager or civil engineer why humanistic knowledge is useful. Mostly that’s harder because of existing pedagogy, not because it’s an intrinsically difficult argument. Many of us (K-12 and higher education) don’t teach to utility either because we philosophically reject the appeal to utility as vulgar and reductive or because we’re struggling to work from a dog’s breakfast of administrative mandates and ed-school jargon about the usefulness of humanistic knowledge.
Cultural and historical literacy enriches your rhetorical and interpersonal skills. It helps you imagine other people, which is the key to so very much in life: to love well, to raise children well, to live in community well, to self-develop, to choose when and how to fight for yourself and your beliefs.
I’ve been in a lot of houses where Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” is kept around somewhere. The knowledge at the core of that prayer is fundamentally a knowledge of history, social structure and cultural contingency. What cannot be changed, what can be, and the difference. It’s not hard to convince people that the terms of the prayer are at the heart of being a successful person in work and in private life. It shouldn’t be that hard to convince them that knowing more about history and culture and philosophy help. But we can’t convince others unless we consciously teach to those terms, without trying to control or dictate the end results of how our students will work out that equation in life and work.
Wow. There is a lot here worthy of discussion. I agree with probably the majority but agreement is not exactly the point; your thinking is obviously a work in progress.
To ask a side question, why is using Bourdieu reductive? You keep coming back to cultural capital, the ability to display knowledge as a signifier, etc. Of course that isn’t all there is, but just looking at the weight you give various themes, it illuminates a lot of the issues. Is this perhaps something you are required to say to remain respectable within your discipline (if that’s not too reductive)?
More seriously, perhaps the strongest theme (of many important ones) is “knowledge” — does one need to “know” something, how does certain “knowledge” help, etc. You implicitly but pretty clearly frame this knowledge as propositional.
Let me deeply contest the relevance of propositional knowledge to most of your actual issues, and provide an alternative within your example.
I claim most, possibly all of these issues with respect to the needs of the students can be better addressed by teaching skills of social analysis and self-presentation, rather than “knowledge” as you frame it.
Suppose the teacher who is trying the get the students to read The Scarlet Letter started by having some students role play an interaction in which they’d be embarrassed by not knowing something about Hawthorne (or more practically showed them a video in which students like them did this role play).
But not just as a stupid incentive to get with the program. Suppose the students then expanded on the role play, exploring (and discussing) the ways to detect they are in that kind of situation, ways to rhetorically get out of it if they don’t know the content, ways to efficiently extract the minimum content from the maximum number of sources to prepare for those social milieu, etc.
This all sounds way above the heads of 16 year olds, and of course the theory is (except for the AP ones who’d have a ball). But the practice is something they do every day. 16 year olds probably spend most of their waking hours in some form of analysis of the social relations they are embedded in, and trying to improve their self-presentation. (Plus of course they dream about the same things.)
So if the teacher got them role playing the relevant situations, and critiquing each other’s self-presentation, I’m quite sure they’d bring a huge amount of skill, energy, and creative intelligence to the process. In a few sessions they’d be able to ace any interaction (except truly scholarly ones) about Hester Prynne, they’d be able to detect and navigate in similar interactions where they didn’t have the background, and they’d have at least a rough sense of how to quickly orient within some domain of cultural capital like “canonical English literature” and learn what they need to know.
To return to your initial point this would leave most people in a better position than Sarah Palin, who has never acquired the rhetorical skills to handle these situations gracefully, or the standpoint to think about her own ignorance in a healthy way.
We could (and perhaps should) argue about whether this would actually work. But suppose it did. Which of your issues remain to be addressed? For one thing, we’d need to think about the larger social impact — I’m not sure but on the whole I think it would be positive.
The most obvious broader effect is that teachers and students could operate with much less enforced pretense (false consciousness). It seems to me that this has to be healthy, though I’d be interested to see a good defense of false consciousness. Getting rid of the pretense would in turn would open up a whole lot of space for discussion of how these dynamics work in the situations the students see in their lives, on TV and movies, etc. as well as future situations in college, work, adult social environments, etc.
Conversely, of course, it is just that false consciousness that would generate a political firestorm if anything like this was attempted, especially with students who were not in the cultural elites. All the social sanctions used to enforce the pretenses would be brought to bear on anyone who tried it. Of course that in itself would be quite interesting to watch.
Maybe enough for now, I may say more later.
I think most citations of Bourdieu to cover these issues end up reductively encompassing his argument in Distinction as saying that culture is nothing more than an instrument of social or class differentiation, that its communicative content is beside the point, evacuating any discussion of what a text says or any explanation besides the social for why any given audience might consume a text or performance. One of the really good studies out there that I was directed to by readers of this blog which I view as a major response to this kind of vulgar Bourdieuian argument is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. Among other things, Rose argues that the content of the works that British workers were reading mattered very much to them, that they were engaged in very substantive interpretations. Rose observes that many of the works they were most drawn to were those that were socially associated with 19th C. conservatism and “traditional” canons, but he insists that this wasn’t about some imitative or aspirational reading, a desire to perform an identity.
But I think your major point is a really interesting one. My initial response to it is that knowledge also matters *both* to the quality of how people perform cultural competencies *and* to the underlying consequences of having cultural competency.
The first is the easier case to make: that if you don’t *know* The Scarlet Letter both as text and in the context of the history of American literature, your performance of what’s going on in it will be less skilled or competent than it might otherwise be. I readily concede that a student who reads a Cliff’s Notes version of a text can, if they’re otherwise rhetorically skilled, perform cultural competence fairly well. But they’re always one step away from a disastrous misstep.
The second point is harder but it’s really important. Let’s say students role-play The Scarlet Letter and are guided in appearing competent users of the text. What’s going to happen in most cases is what happens in some historical re-enactments and other similar exercises: a reductive and ultimately narcissistic flattening of the text or history or body of knowledge is going to take place. In it, the students will only be encouraged to find themselves, or that which they already know.
It’s the difference between facilitation and teaching. I can facilitate or negotiate for people. In that context, I’m not necessarily additive at all, and I propose that nothing is lacking in them. I’m helping to elicit something from within that’s believed to be there already. Teaching, it seems to me, begins from a premise of a lack, that the student does not yet have something (knowledge, skill, competency) which the teacher will impart to them. Good education has a mixture of both facilitation and teaching, I think. So while I can bring forth an existing skill at social analysis around the device of The Scarlet Letter, and maybe help a student hone that through practice, I also think I need to teach them something about the book that they don’t already know. Yes, so they can make better use of what they already are but also to encounter the critical point that not everything is them, that the world is not just a solipsistic mirror. Knowledge involves bringing a cumulative body of not-self into what you are and what you think.
A few more semi-random comments on re-reading.
I see one of your issues that isn’t addressed above is developing “a passion for the content of literary and historical knowledge”. There I think Paolo Friere has pretty much provided the recipe (which requires recognizing that a focus on “knowledge” as you use it here leads us down the wrong path). Find the cultural material about which your students are already passionate.Teach them to analyze their own and each other’s engagements consciously, constructively and self-critically. (This can easily be motivated by having them analyze passions of their classmates that they don’t share.) Then (optionally) teach them to deploy those skills in domains that they don’t initially care about, such as history or literature.
This last step of course is much, much harder, but it is basically impossible without the previous ones.
Your mention “teaching to the test” in passing but I think it raises an interesting point. Everything I’ve said is “teaching to the test”, it is just teaching to a different set of tests, ones the students actually are engaged with already. Furthermore those are tests that in some sense they’ll ineluctably have to keep taking for the rest of their lives, while the academic test will soon be irrelevant.
Again in your comments about Palin and Bush, I contest your emphasis on knowledge, though of course I agree about the past and possibly future disasters. All the knowledge in the world wouldn’t help if the office holder can’t use it effectively. Conversely, I think of having the knowledge as just a way of getting the skills and intuition, plus command of a resources to make one’s communication more effective (through examples etc.
For an (admittedly somewhat far fetched) example of how this distinction plays out, consider Magnus Carlsen, the chess wunderkind. He hasn’t had the normal training or embedding in chess culture, so he doesn’t know as much chess lore, for example the huge number of classic games that high level chess players have studied to develop their skills. Instead he has played an enormous amount of chess against very good computer programs. Apparently this has developed a remarkable level of skill and intuition about chess, without the usual historical context. Possibly the computer games in which he can experiment without the risk of “real” losses also helped.
Unfortunately it’s hard to transpose that into humanistic domains, until we can effectively simulate the legendary court of Denmark or historical Timbucktu in the late Askia dynasty and let students experiment with being Hamlet or Askia Ishaq II. But at least it is useful to understand that students might be better off with a computer simulation than reading Shakespeare or actual history. (Note: I don’t know anything about the history of Timbucktu, I just skimmed Wikipedia — but if I created a decent example that proves something, I think.)
Finally to close out my rereading and your “knowledge” theme, I don’t think Niebuhr is referring to knowledge “of” at all. He’s referring to skills of analysis, judgement, human engagement, and self-management, which may be acquired through studying history, culture and philosophy in the right way but could also (perhaps more reliably) be acquired in other ways.
And that truly is all for now.
Thanks for the quick reply. I’ll leave aside your first practical point that students might not be able to effectively navigate in domains where their knowledge is thin. I think they could learn the skills to do that without pretending they have deep knowledge, so they wouldn’t be very vulnerable to disaster. But that is potentially a long very “applied” discussion in its own right.
Your second more deeply felt reply deserves a deeper response.
You say “I can facilitate or negotiate for people. In that context, I?? not necessarily additive at all, and I propose that nothing is lacking in them. I?? helping to elicit something from within that?? believed to be there already.” I suppose that would be the Socratic or Platonic pose, but of course we don’t any more believe the underlying Platonic epistemology. Today perhaps the closest analog is non-directive therapy, which can be very useful for some problems.
But that is not at all what I’m talking about here, and I guess we are talking somewhat past each other for some reason. I’ll try to find some better framing.
Rather than just facilitating I’m talking about (in some cases very harsh) scaffolding of skills, self-perceptions, etc. Think of (literal) boot camps as an extreme example. Graduate school in many cases is a less extreme but still very demanding example. “Grunts” in such programs are put in situations where they have to go beyond their comfort zone repeatedly, and in the process acquire skills and self-perceptions they couldn’t acquire on their own. Sometimes this is “just” hazing, but often the subjects are being forced to extend themselves in ways required to develop key abilities.
You continue “Teaching, it seems to me, begins from a premise of a lack, that the student does not yet have something (knowledge, skill, competency) which the teacher will impart to them.” We pretty much agree, though I’d frame the student’s condition as “potential” not “lack”. This is not just rhetorical. “Lack” implies there’s a fairly determinate “hole” to be “filled” with something the teacher “has”. “Potential” implies that the student is going to be “growing” something new, that is only somewhat predictable, and that might be something the teacher doesn’t “have”. I think the second set of implications is far more accurate.
Skipping a bit, you say “So while I can bring forth an existing skill at social analysis around the device of The Scarlet Letter, and maybe help a student hone that through practice, I also think I need to teach them something about the book that they don?? already know.” I agree with all of that except “about the book”. My scenario was not intended to just bring forth and hone existing skills, though obviously I didn’t say that clearly. The sort of public role playing, critical discussion of the role play, exercises to acquire the knowledge needed to succeed, etc. would all bring to awareness lots of implicit assumptions, expose them to critique, scaffold the acquisition / construction of a language to discuss the issues raised, and push the students to actually engage with the material in new ways.
However my initial scenario is too accommodating, I suppose because I was taking the side of the 16 year old too completely. I agree we can and should demand much more of students than just facilitating development of their social skills. However I’d address your extensive concerns about the traditional curriculum not by trying to motivate it or do a better job of teaching it, but by focusing on our legitimate demands, and finding ways to address those as directly as possible. The students will know the difference. 16 year olds often appreciate boot camp, or Outward Bound, or whatever. If they feel they’re being pushed beyond their comfort zone in ways that actually realize potentials they didn’t know (or didn’t believe) they had, they will throw themselves into the process.
Finally we agree that “Knowledge involves bringing a cumulative body of not-self into what you are and what you think.” Any true growth requires that, though I’d prefer to say how you think. The problem with traditional curricula is that they mostly feed students “non-nutritive fiber” that’s never assimilated and is excreted as soon as convenient (more direct phrasing left to the reader). As you are arguing just feeding them junk food that they enjoy is no better. We need to scaffold their adoption of a comprehensive program of nutrition and exercise that they can build into their life going forward.
Tying up small loose end:
I understand and agree with your point about “vulgar Bourdieuian argument”.
The point of Jonathan Rose?? that you cite, that “the content of the works that British workers were reading mattered very much to them, that they were engaged in very substantive interpretations” seems exactly right, not just for British workers in that era but for any coherent cultural group. This point that is surprising mainly if one unreflectively buys into the social stratification maintained by Bourdieuian signaling, which reserves engagement with content and substantive interpretation for certain elites (readers of Bourdieu, for example).
I’d propose we should build on Rose’s point to engage the students: Respect their own engagements as a starting point, and challenge them with interpretive discourse regarding whatever “works.. matter… very much to them, [which] they [will] engage… in very substantive interpretation”.
I just can’t see The Scarlet Letter as a work that could really matter to students until much later, if ever. And if it does not, and yet it is important for them to know about it for social reasons, a fairly vulgar Bourdieuian treatment is more honest and useful in that case.
Yes, absolutely agree. That’s why there’s a desperate need to clean out the accumulation of several generations of bad selection of material that can’t matter to teenagers–and yes, I think this is precisely where the critique of the canon by many literary scholars is completely on point, where selection is driven by a system of distinction that’s basically exogenous to the teachability or even quality of the literary works that end up being deemed vitally necessary for teenagers to read.
Really enjoyed reading this, Tim. Even before you got to the cultural literacy argument I was asking myself, “But what about cultural literacy?” I think there’s benefit in a liberal arts education that has been lost in the increasing specialization of college degrees that goes beyond the issue that engineering and science (and business, to some extent) graduates are unfamiliar with the classics–it’s more of a general “that reading/writing stuff is not important to what I’ll be doing the rest of my life.” Perhaps if people only interacted through numbers and specifications, that would be correct, but as humans we use words, and the accumulation of word culture means that there are methods by which we express ideas in shorthand, such as the manager who explains to his subordinates that there is a sword of Damocles hanging over his head or a co-worked complaining to another that she feels like she is wearing a red A on her chest since that accident report she wrote was picked up by the newspaper.
That said, I think we’re in agreement. It would be interesting if the pedagogy of classic literature focused more on the understanding of such cultural tropes rather than focusing on minor plot details or analysing a writing style that hasn’t been used for a hundred years.
There are a decent number of facts that people need to know to avoid potential ridicule. A surprisingly small number of them have to do with high culture. You are going to have to know about big gulps and light-sabers way more than the sword of Damocles. That probably isn’t very new given how many references the looney tunes have to other popular culture of its era, but it does affect the utility of teaching high culture references to kids. Especially if you do it by making kids read “the scarlet letter” rather than just taking 5 minutes to explain the cultural reference to them.
But cultural literacy as it is really lived by the culturally literate (who they? lets say regular New Yorker or NYRB/LRB readers) very rarely includes the classics (unless recently revitalised, by say a new translation of Tolstoy). And Rose towards the end of his excellent book, does support somewhat a Bourdievian reading, that the classics were deserted by the upper classes as they were encroached upon by the Leonard Basts.
Thus I would suggest that the stodgy classic is regarded as a deliberate barrier to entry even by those high in cultural capital, and I’m interested in you saying “the only kids who really fight off jumping through the hoops are those determined to leave the social world of their upbringing.” – surely lots of Ivy league jocks who hate Shakespeare have every intention of remaining in their social stratum, and know very well that the wider world look on it as a childish thing to be put away when they join their investment bank or whatever.
Looking at peoples collections on LibraryThing.com is a good way to see how in fact cultural literacy doesn’t depend on a shared core of cultural works. I can meet a Bach/ Mozart fanatic and have a fully engaged exchange with them as know the general deal about classical music as an activity. In fact ‘literacy’ is a misnomer here, it really is more like learning a certain kind of (often nonchalant, interested yet disinterested) shop-talk, and fundamentally an agreement on the discursive rules (again, Rose shows how being too earnest ended up being a class marker).
All of this was displayed during the Infinite Summer ‘book club’ about Infinite Jest – some saw it exactly as the grind you are describing (but read it anyway), and there were interesting clashes in the different modes in which people tried to describe it.
There’s a line in ‘Distinction’ where Bourdieu says high cultural activities are called disinterested because they offer no intrinsic interest (no palpable pleasure). So one could cynically conclude that the difficulty is a feature, not a bug. But I think the works the literati do re-read and do enjoy (say Austen, Woolf, Kafka…) are constantly getting re-used in film & TV, and thus what’s going on with the Scarlet Letter is something other than cultural literacy as normally understood. In fact, how much History does form a part of the standard reference framework of the NYRB reader – probably not that much…