Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Cultural Literacy

Included under the rubric of cultural literacy is having a basic knowledge of the history of the country you are living in. There is an assumption, particularly in my generation and the generation immediately following mine, that such history is being taught well. Sigh--not.

In introducing a how-to-do-research unit I am teaching, I pointed out that some of the questions the students were being asked to find the answers for were not straightforward. A student asked for an example of such a question. The example was: "Who was the Vice President under Millard Fillmore?" And then a different question came back at me, more than once: "We had a President named Millard Fillmore? Really?"

Yes, a boy's yeshiva high school problem, in that American History is being reduced to a few facts compacted into a highly foreshortened course. But our boys are not alone in being ignorant about President Fillmore. Apparently the Web abounds with listings of our lesser known, less famous or completely unknown Presidents. Among those most frequently cited as lesser known/not known are: Martin van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison. I'm not saying that we all should know every detail of every President's life, but not recognizing the name? The Presidents on the list I just gave represent approximately 1/4 of all of our Presidents. That's an awful lot of missing name recognition.

President Fillmore, however, seems to win the contest for the most famous forgotten President. So, a few facts about President Fillmore, if he, too, is on your forgotten list. He was the thirteenth President of the United States, serving from 1850--1853. He was not elected to the presidency but became president, as he was the Vice President, when President Zachary Taylor died of cholera while in office. During his term in office he shepherded the Compromise of 1850 through Congress to passage. California was admitted as a free state in the Union. Fillmore also sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan in order to convince the empire to open up to free trade.

See? Getting that little bit of cultural literacy history didn't hurt a bit.


Anonymous said...

Maybe when info was lots harder to find you needed to keep all those facts in your head.Today it's easy to find that info so maybe what kids need to concentrate on is how to research to find what you need to find instead of just memorizing everything. It's importance of the info too. They didn't know Filmore? So, not much to know there. I'd be more upset if they didn't know Washington or Lincoln.

JS said...


I cringe every time you relate one of these stories concerning the ignorance of your students. At least someone is trying to fill them in on the years of education they are missing.


How can you research something that you don't even know exists? Or, better yet, why learn anything? There are books full of knowledge whenever you happen to have a need for it. There's a vast difference between memorizing information (which may or may not be useful) and actually learning it in the first place. It's akin to the difference between knowing what the symbol pi represents and knowing the value of pi to 10 decimal points.

While I don't think knowing who Millard Fillmore is or what his accomplishments were ranks very high on the list of topics one is likely to encounter, because this information is typically taught in a high school American History course not knowing even who he is bespeaks an ignorance about a wide swath of our common history and heritage.

Anonymous said...

One of the best Simpsons songs is called "we are the mediocre Presidents-

JS said...

All: We are the mediocre presidents.
You won't find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There's Taylor, there's Tyler,
There's Fillmore and there's Hayes.
There's William Henry Harrison,

Harrison: I died in thirty days!

All: We... are... the...
Adequate, forgettable,
Occasionally regrettable
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!

Of course, you have this great song from the Animaniacs show listing all the US Presidents:

They also have great songs on the countries of the world and the state capitols:

I know people who still hum these songs when trying to remember these factoids.

ProfK_offspring said...

JS: My friend's kids know the presidents of the U.S. because of that Animaniacs song (well...that and their mom has all of the presidents, planets, capitals, etc. up on the kitchen wall to reinforce the info).

Actually, teaching through song is often very effective.

In my senior year of high school, Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" hit the radio. As a history buff, it was a big favorite of mine at the time--and I can still sing all the lyrics. My yeshiva hadn't really gone completely off the deep end by that point, so quite a number of girls in my class listened to the song on their Walkmans. I was really amused when at least one history-challenged classmate admitted to running through the song lyrics during our American History regent in order to answer a question.

And my mother can confirm that I will likely never forget when the Battle of New Orleans took place because my parents taught us Johnny Horton's famous song about said battle as kids.

Abba said...



what's that? ;)

JS said...


I think I've heard of them before. Best I understand it they're like ipods, but bigger, have less features, and play less music.

Why anyone would want one I have no idea.