Cultural literacy is the background knowledge common to a society that each person must possess to effectively communicate with one another. According to Hirsch, "It is the background informartion, stored in their minds, that enable them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read."

In his book, Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch examines the state of today's society and attributes the decline in the level of our children's education to a lack of cultural literacy.

The United States is ranked among the highest countries in reading skills of children in the third grade and below. Then as grade level increases the US rank falls farther from the top. It is at the third grade level that reading skills become an interpretive skill rather than a mechanical one. Basically our children are not having a problem with sounding out words, they are not understanding what they are reading. Hirsch attributes this lack of comprehension with a lack of cultural literacy among our students and thus proposes the introduction of basic cultural literacy at the pre-school level.

Many of Hirsch's opponents argue that the adoption of the cultural literacy curriculum will lead to a nation-wide mandatory reading list and will limit children in their understanding of the cultures around them and suggest multi-culturism as an alternative.

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