To infinity and beyond…
To me, there are two obvious counter-points to the idea that you need to give students a background knowledge in something before they make sense of it for themselves.
The first one is: when do you stop? You could say that in order to learn about the origins of the Second World War you would need to know about the First World War. That seems reasonable, but why stop there? Why not also learn about the First Sino-Japanese War, or the history of industrialized conflict, or the suffrage movement, or the history of equity markets. Pretty soon you’ll be stuck in an infinite loop of ‘background’ questions until you’re wondering who lit the touch paper on the big bang.
The second one is: who gets to choose what is important? In student-centred models of learning a student is encouraged to think, and to question, and to generally accept that knowledge is a big, messy, expanding ball of stuff that needs to be untangled. In the cultural literacy model someone makes that decision for you. Someone is saying that this is more important than that. Even with the very best of intentions it is easy to imagine how this might create a rather partial view of the world.
As an example, I was recently asked to look at the national curriculum for art and design. It included the sentence ‘Pupils should learn about the achievements of great artists and designers.’ According to who, I wondered at the time (and still do). There has been a lot of artists and designers in the history of the world, so how do you compile a list of them, or select the criteria to whittle them down to a manageable number. It seems an absurd task. In addition, what is the value of doing so in the first place? You don’t want people to do what they did (after all, it’s already been done). Isn’t there more value in debating why someone is considered great rather than noting that they are?
To me the cultural literacy model seems excessively paternalistic. It puts knowledge into frames and asks you to admire it from behind the boundary rope. It may be a disadvantage not to know who Job was, or how to calculate the radius of a circle, or which crown Hamlet was after but it is not the measure of a person, or their potential.