Proposal for Contemporary American Literacy (drawing material from a projected preface)

In reaction to Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, and Harold Bloom, among others, may I propose to write a book of approximately 250 pages with approximately two dozen black and white illustrations. Going beyond the exclusively literary bias of all these books, I would propose that literacy in our time should include familiarity with more than classic books; it should encompass as well basic knowledge of visual art in all forms, music both classical and popular, dance, sports, and the new intermedia arts. Contemporary literacy is not complete without discriminative knowledge of history, science, social science, and new technologies, beginning with computers. More practically, literacy should include the ability to read machine manuals along with experience at reading novels. My thesis is that no one is truly literate unless he or she aims for competent knowledge in all these areas. (The contrast is partial literacy represented by Hirsch and the two Blooms--a partial literacy that becomes increasingly limited in our culturally richer times.) Since this book will be written in my most accessible style, I’d like to think it could become a best-seller in the wake of the books noted above.

Most of Contemporary American Literacy will have chapters on different areas, outlining with choice examples various dimensions of basic literacy. My principal recurring theme in understanding any intellectual discipline or art is that each is about issues and histories unique to it. Simply, a new work of painting, say, becomes important for its contribution to a perceived tradition of painting, not for the “truth” of its “content.” Knowledge and experience of the best past endeavors is the principal prerequisite for perceiving new work in any field, including, say, new machine manuals. A second theme holds that genuine literacy depends upon discrimination and thus a knowledge of excellence. It isn’t enough that one knows something about a “field”; it is more important to master what is best in each discipline and know why. A third theme dear to me is that no area of knowledge is intrinsically superior to any other, which is to say that no art or field of endeavor is necessarily less accessible than any other--each does the Lord’s work in different ways. (Since I’m not a professor of this or that, I have no privileged reason to tout one discipline as primary knowledge.) A fourth theme is that literacy in America today is necessarily different from classical, European, or Oriental literacy. I find it important that most educated people, if presented with these four themes, agree with them.

The practical issue becomes how to deal with these themes in a book. After a critique of partial literacy in our time, I would broach basic literacy in several areas, focusing upon masterpieces. For an epigraph I might use this from Harold Bloom: “The Canon was (and is) formed by the great writers themselves, who work in the mode of their precursors (thus canonizing them) and are in turn canonized implicitly by the great writers who come after them, and are influenced by them.” I like this formulation because even though it reflects Bloom’s commitment to only bookish literacy, the principle is applicable to many areas from visual arts to mathematics to sports (where great new performance is acclaimed precisely because it enhances as it reflects previous superior performance).

Noting how many young people develop basic intellectual discipline through enthusiasms for one or another kind of mass culture, such as popular music or sports, it might be interesting to start the book with a chapter on sports literacy, which involves of course a familiarity with the precise achievements of the major performers. I would conclude the book with advice on organizing knowledge, beginning with note-taking and filing. If this book succeeds, I could imagine it contributing to the discussion of curriculum in America. In contrast to Hirsch and the two Blooms, who seem more concerned with distinguishing Ins from Outs (in schemes reminiscent of Esquire chartings of the American literary scene), I wish to denigrate not individuals or their works but limited modes of literacy.

As I think of myself as literate in most of these areas, having written about nearly all of them at various times, most chapters will be my introductions to excellence, focusing upon various individuals and achievements of the first rank. I plan to write as one literate adult speaking to another and concluding with useful bibliographies. In those few areas problematic to me, such as mathematics and computer/machine manuals, I may incorporate the advice of colleagues. I imagine a book of 20 chapters, each 5,000 words in length. It should be dedicated to the memory of Marshall McLuhan, who, though he was personally bookish, taught me about the insufficiences of bookish literacy in our times.

In the following outline, I’ve noted possible chapters and left a few open for discoveries made in the course of writing (e.g., food and drink):


  1. Contemporary American Literacy
  2. History, emphasizing such masterpieces as Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition.
  3. Sports, focusing upon such great sportsmen as Babe Ruth, Julius Erving, Bobby Hull, Pele, et al. (which is to say the guys who revolutionized their games)
  4. Poetry, featuring Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and E. E. Cummings, among others
  5. Fiction, discussing Miguel de Cervantes, William Faulkner, Jorge-Luis Borges, Gertrude Stein
  6. Theater, with Shakespeare. Samuel Beckett, nonliterary performance
  7. Exposition, with Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, H. L. Mencken
  8. Music, with J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Charles Ives, Duke Ellington
  9. Visual Arts, with Islamic art, Michelangelo, the moderns.
  10. Dance, with Isadora Duncan, Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham
  11. Film, with D. W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, contemporaries
  12. Architecture, from the Parthenon to Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and the works of the best contemporaries
  13. Television/Video, with Ernie Kovacs, and recent video artists, such as Nam June Paik
  14. Polyartistry, with Wm. Blake, L. Moholy-Nagy, John Cage
  15. Social Science, with Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Mead
  16. Science, with Galileo, Albert Einstein
  17. Machine Manuals, with those for VCRs, computers, automobiles
  18. Mathematics, with Descartes, Henri Poincaré, Alfred North Whitehead, Benoit Mendelbrot
  19. Philosophy/Theology, with St. Thomas, H. Niebuhr, L. Wittgenstein
  20. Organizing Knowledge and Realizing Literacy, or how to make the most intelligent use of the information you acquire

After taking degrees in cultural history, I have at one time or another written about all the arts, in addition to other cultural areas, and that my home library, once featured on the front page of the NY Times Thursday Home section, includes several thousand books, several hundred records and audiotapes, and hundreds of videotapes. Most of the research for this book has already been done in the course of my professional work; most of it can be written from resources immediately at hand. Were the book contracted soon after the receipt of this proposal, I would expect to deliver a completed manuscript within two years.