Cultural Literacy in my Classroom.

Posted: March 3, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Each of the last three terms, I have taught RMU students about the Holocaust.  I created this course on history’s most infamous genocide, and it is, as compared to the most of the survey history classes our students take, extremely detailed.  To properly cover such a topic within 10 weeks is quite challenging. One hurdle to face is the seemingly simple question: Where to begin?  Should the course focus solely upon the Twentieth Century?  Or, should it range back to the earliest days of European Antisemitism; perhaps even back to the break of Christianity from Judaism?  It is a difficult issue, but, after teaching the course numerous times, I have a methodology.  The first class in the course focuses upon Christian Antisemitism and anti-Judaism from the earliest days, down to the beginnings of the early modern European world (circa 1600).


Antisemitism as a term was first used by anti-Jewish political parties

Obviously, this is a great deal of information to dole out to students in 90 minutes, and though I think I have gotten pretty good at painting with a broad historical analytical brush, I recently realized I faced a problem in this initial course.  The first couple times I taught the course, I quickly jumped into the history of Antisemitism, using the term Antisemitism over and over during my first lecture.  Most students seemed interested, and appeared to recognize the word.  Then, maybe a year ago, when I mentioned Antisemitism for the first time in class, I noticed a furrowed brow or two among my students.  Hmmm.  Why the confusion? Then, it struck me: These students don’t recognize the term.  Sure enough, when I asked my students who knew what Antisemitism was, I only saw a tentative smattering of hands.  My mind zoomed back to my previous courses. What if the vast majority of my students had NO idea what I meant in any of those classes when I first used the term Antisemitism?

I jumped into action.  I needed to clearly define the term.  Or, better yet, I would ask my students to find a definition for me.

Understand that I write this not as a critique of my students, but as a critique of myself.  I had been making the worst assumption a teacher can make.  I lazily figured that my students have the same information in their heads that I do. The power of this classroom incident really struck home for me recently when I stumbled upon a wonderful, important article in The Atlantic titled, “To Read Dickens, It helps to know about French History and the Bible.”  Jessica Lahey, the writer of the article, is a middle-school teacher.  She realized that for her students to really understand, and hence, enjoy Dickens’ classic The Tale of Two Cities, they would need to be ‘culturally literate’ in the terms of French 18th century history and the New Testament.  To provide this cultural background, Lahey now begins each of her classes with important terms and ideas that will clarify the necessary material for that day.

Lahey does this for her 8th graders, but, this is not something that should be exclusive to age or grade level. Such introduction to ‘cultural literacy’ is a constant of thorough education. Without it, the student suffers. However, it often must be handled with kid gloves.  The introduction of ‘cultural literacy’ should never be done in a spirit of elite superiority. Let me give one personal anecdote to prove my point. I  particularly remember a graduate school instructor of mine who often portrayed the students’ lack of cultural literacy as an incredible failureJacques-Louis_David_004_Thermopylae on their parts.  One example: In his 19th century German history course, this grad professor asked me and the rest of the students about a Greek history reference we stumbled upon in a work by Nietzsche (I think). No one in the class recognized the reference. Our professor was visibly dismayed.

He huffed his frustration, mentioning that the writer was obviously referring to ‘Thermopylae” and the 300 Spartans who died there facing a vastly greater Persian force. (This classroom incident took place several years before the hit film 300 was released.)  I and my classmates  felt inadequate. According to him, we SHOULD have known about Thermopylae, and the fact that we did not illustrated an unforgivable ignorance.  Imagine how my classmates and I responded to questions from that point on.  There was always a concern of looking ‘dumb’, and facing a dismissive smirk from ‘the expert.’

I realize now that incidents like this happen on an everyday basis in a college classroom. Of course, this does not mean every professor reacts to a lack of cultural literacy in the way my professor did.  But, if we assume all our students understand a term or idea that we are familiar with, we have taken a step on that slippery slope.  Of course, some in the class do have the recognition of cultural ideas and terms from day one.  Those students will most likely be the ‘hand-raisers’.  They will ask the questions, and become invested in the class.  This is wonderful.  But what if most of the class is instantly alienated by an assumption of cultural literacy? This silent majority may lose hope, and/or interest.  Many will feel the way I felt about not recognizing the word ‘Thermopylae’.  Can they overcome this feeling? Will they take it in stride?  This is the question, and it will mean failure or success for many.

I don’t know about you, but I want all my students to be successful.


  1. Love this post — thank you for sharing this. When I was earning my MA in American Studies I ran into this problem **all the time** — professors were constantly assuming people understood concepts, terms, and histories that many clearly did not come to the table with, and while some professors were good about taking confusion/lack of cultural literacy in stride, other professors were openly negative and even mocking (a tone that only succeeded in shutting down all conversation). Thanks again for sharing about this important issue!

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