Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who is Rip Van Winkle? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Who is Rip Van Winkle?

What is Pandora's box?

Who were David and Goliath?

Lately, I've been asking my older audiences this series of questions. (Older, in my case, means 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders.) Invariably, and without fail, nobody can identify any of these cultural touchstones. Sometimes I get a "that sounds familiar" response, but so far I'm batting a big fat zero.

What's it mean? I'm not sure. But I do remember being very interested in E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s books in the late eighties; in 1986 he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and in 1988 he published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. These books caused a big stir. As I recall, the premise was that Americans were slowly losing that common cultural literacy that tied us all together and helped us communicate and understand each other. There is no question the problem continues today. Perhaps it's getting worse?

Because none of the kids I speak to know who Rip Van Winkle is, I decided to write a picture book manuscript about him. It's called Rip Van Winkle: A Hide-and-Seek Legend. Who knows if it will ever sell, but I think it's really funny and helps promote a cultural icon that everyone should be able to reference and understand. (Fact is, I think it's flippin' hilarious...but I'm not ready to send it to my agent, Linda, just yet!) I should mention that ol' Rip came up at our house because my 12-year-old has begun that Rip Van Winkle stage of life.

Lo and behold, I pick up the this morning's USA Today and there's a sizeable article on just this subject, front page no less! Sounds like a new report came out telling us how clueless our kids are. It's a study released by a researcher named Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute and titled Still at Risk: What Student's Don't Know, Even Now.

For an overview of it all, you can read the USA Today article here. You can even take a test and see if you're smarter than a 17-year-old!

And if you don't get that "Bueller? Bueller?" reference in the title of this post, I'm truly concerned about your cultural literacy!