Perhaps I am being too harsh on the Cultural Literacy theory for its implied authoritarianism. After all, there are a number of theories that define what is to be learnt. Threshold concepts, for example, involves the identification of a set of concepts that students need to internalise in order to see the world as their teachers do. Is that so different?
I suspect that the key difference between the two is that Threshold concepts are just that: concepts. They are ideas that help us to make sense of the world. I would guess that the content of a Cultural Literacy syllabus is more prosaic. Spiders have eight legs. Henry VIII succeeded Henry VII. Mixing red and yellow pigment makes orange pigment. These are facts, and as I have already argued, facts change. Essentially we are back to the discussion about surface and deep learning and the role of rote teaching.
There is another factor to consider? Is Cultural Literacy about learning at all? Perhaps it is more about being able to function effectively in society; to know what we presume others know so as not to appear ignorant. In that sense it could be more about the appearance of learnedness rather than actual learning (i.e. talking the talk rather than walking the walk).
Perhaps most damningly, it is about safe knowledge. In the same way that once reviled people like Nelson Mandela and Mohammad Ali are now revered, is it possible that knowledge is only acceptable once a disruptive concept has weathered a little? Does a Cultural Literacy syllabus reject the contemporary and in doing so discouraging exactly the kind of thinking that it is – very retrospectively – celebrated? Do Copernicus, Darwin and Picasso only get a look in because they are safely dead and buried?
Or put simply, is an iPhone a more successful learner than I am? After all, it can answer all kinds of questions, and will – usually – do so succinctly and speedily. If the proponents of the Cultural Literacy model hold sway then perhaps we could let our phones take classes in our stead.