Allusions and Cultural Literacy

I continually hear from my fellow department members that kids today are not as intelligent as kids 10 years ago, and I admit that I have seen a distinct difference between the general students of today and a decade ago; however, I also see a marked contrast between the top 10% of my school’s students today and 10 years ago.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t think the change is intelligence. If anything, in math, students today are a year ahead of the high school students of the early 2000s. Still, my Language Arts students are not as proficient as they once were.

My thinking now is that the students of today lack the cultural literacy of yesteryear. Kids struggle to catch allusions to historical events, biblical figures, and current events. Even in my non-honors classes of the late 90s and early 2000s, kids could explain who King Solomon was when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This year I have four classes of American Literature of different levels and only two students could identify King Solomon. No one this year knew the Dauphin (a bit more understandable), only a quarter of my juniors knew Hamlet was a Shakespearean play, and (maybe) 10 students knew what decade the Civil War occurred much less that Reconstruction followed it.

I just don’t think today’s kids, on the whole, read as much or are exposed to as much of what is typically defined as “culture.”

Anyway, after seeing this lack of cultural literacy while reading Twain’s novel, I decided to test the kids’ cultural literacy. I have a book about cultural literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and I had six kids shout out a page number. I wrote these on the board, and I then opened to those pages, wrote down the first item I saw, and had the kids try to identify each item. The ones I chose the first time were:

  • The Battle of Hastings
  • coup d’tat
  • Robert Oppenheimer
  • Babe Ruth
  • Canterbury Tales
  • gulags

After the pseudo-quiz I polled the students to see how they did, and the high score was a single student with four correct answers, two students got three correct, and the rest of the students correctly identified 2 or fewer items.

It would be easy to complain and shrug my shoulders and move one, but I decided to try and help increase the students’ knowledge base. I talked with my students, and they liked the cultural literacy quiz so we’re going to try it once a week throughout the second semester.

Also, I started projecting a political cartoon, a comic, or a short music video with allusions. Each day I project the item onto the front screen, give the kids a minute to think about what is seen, and then I ask someone to explain the joke and/or allusions. They love it!

Does anyone do anything similar?


Here is the comic I provided on Thursday with two obvious references to Snooki and Kim Kardashian as well as an allusion to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote (and I had to explain what a timeshare is):

15 Minutes of Fame

















On Friday I shared this comic which uses Angry Birds and The Three Little Pigs:

Angry Birds & The Big Bad Wolf

4 thoughts on “Allusions and Cultural Literacy

  1. Pingback: Allusion A Day | Curious Incident of the Teacher in the Classroom

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