The Importance of Cultural Literacy
Last week I saw a brilliant headline: “Dreamliner Deferred”
The headline alluded to Boeing’s troubled 787 Dreamliner. The FAA recently grounded all 787s currently in service due to multiple problems, most notably fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.
But if this was all you knew about the headline, you’d still be missing a big part of it. That’s because the headline also alludes to one of Langston Hughes most-famous poems titled “A Dream Deferred.” It goes like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, but I’d bet money that 90% of the people who saw the “Dreamliner Deferred” headline completely missed the reference to Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem.
Right now, I’m reading Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.
On page 70, there’s this brief passage:
What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still, small voice inside our heads. At last we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny.
Founding a clinic in the slums of Sao Paulo.
This, we acknowledge at last, is what we are most afraid of. This is what we know in our hearts we have to do.
Here we have another literary allusion. This time it’s to the 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.
Maybe you’ve heard of this book. But have you read it?
And so there’s this idea of “cultural literacy” — a loosely defined collection of literary works, authors, music, artists, events, catch-phrases, phenomenons, and such that each person ought to have at least a passing familiarity with.
Cultural literacy provides a richness to life. When you are culturally literate, just two words at the top of a newspaper can now take on a completely different context and meaning.
But lacking this cultural literacy, the world is much duller.
It is the difference between seeing in three dimensions versus seeing in only two.
-Ryan M. Healy