What Arts and Cultural Concepts Should Every American Know?

The Aspen Institute has a project in which the arts and culture community might want to participate. They are asking “What Every American Should Know.” They acknowledge right off that the project name might be controversial because it evokes E.D. Hirsh’s book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know which sparked a lot of debate.

I have a clear memory of picking up the book while house sitting for a professor and subsequently having a conversation with him about his objections to some of the topics on Hirsh’s list.

The Aspen Institute asks,

In our sweeping and turbulent nation, how can we cultivate a sense of shared culture and identity? The more fragmented we become, the more necessary it is for us to have a common vocabulary – a shared set of cultural and historical references – that we can all collect and understand.

I think the way the current election campaign is being conducted probably underscores the necessity of the type of thing they are doing.

The Aspen Institute list is an extension of an essay Eric Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute American Citizenship and Identity Program wrote. In it, he defends the utility of Hirsh’s effort, in part because even protest movements need to employ the shared vocabulary of the culture they are opposing in order to be effective. He also acknowledges that a new list of 5000 topics needs to be constructed for today’s American citizens.

They have set up a website where you can contribute your top 10 topics. They have a selected lists from various distinguished persons such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, David Henry Hwang, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as examples. I hope they eventually make more lists public. I know 90% of the topics on the selected lists, but the other 5% are new to me so I am curious to know more about what I don’t know.

It probably says something about the validity of Top 10 lists on the Internet that I only started to consider this to be a serious effort when I saw they are scheduling in-person sessions at libraries to discuss the idea of “What Every American Needs To Know.” (scroll to the bottom to see if they are coming to a library near you.)

Obviously I think a lot of arts and culture topics should appear on some lists so the more people that contribute, the better. My only question is what will be done with the lists and will it contribute to effecting the change they seek.

Maybe it is enough just to have conversations in libraries. That may plant the seeds for change that are needed by getting people to talk and relate to one another. Whether it can counteract the bile one finds online remains to be seen.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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