Just over a year ago, in the fall 2015 edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Eric Liu published an article called “How to Be American: Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever—and why such a project serves progressive ends.”
Liu writes, “Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked—and like it or not, over the course of this generation, we’re all going to have to learn a new way to be American.” He wrote that it is “necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols. Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity.”
In 1987, E.D. Hirsch Jr., an English professor at the University of Virginia, published a book called Cultural Literacy that contained an appendix of 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that “every American needs to know.” As any reader of Rolling Stone (or BuzzFeed, for that matter) knows, lists spark discussion and debate, and that’s what happened then – and it’s what’s happening again now.
Liu writes, “The…challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.”
How do we go about reimagining our “shared cultural core” and developing a common vocabulary? How do we decide what’s important? We can start by making a list – together. Anyone can contribute to an ongoing online list at whateveryamericanshouldknow.org. And for the month of December, we’ll have an in-person, interactive display where everyone can write their ideas – it will truly be a living, evolving document all month.
“Multiculturalism is not at odds with a single common culture; it is our single common culture.” -Eric Liu, “How to Be American”
What do you think is important for all Americans to know? It could be a person, an event, a document, a phrase, a book, a piece of music, a poem; it could be something you learned in elementary school or in college or yesterday. Come write your ideas on the display at Robbins Library, and at the end of the month we’ll have an idea of what Arlingtonians think every American should know.