Are You Culturally Literate?

An Interview with Eric Liu

American author Eric Liu
Eric Liu is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program and former aid to President Clinton

“If you think about the perspective…of an immigrant…, what would that person need to know, and to understand, in order to navigate American life effectively?”

What does it mean to be American? That’s a question on the lips of a lot of people these days, whether they’re running for President or picketing in Ferguson.

Recently, The Atlantic published an essay called “What Every American Should Know” by Eric Liu, a former adviser to President Clinton and current head of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. In his essay, Liu revisits the book by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which contains Hirsch’s famous (or infamous) list of 5,000 essential facts for Americans.

A generation later, Liu reflects on conversations that arose around Hirsch’s book (Hirsch had hoped his list would help to include people in the American experience; but critics objected to what they viewed as a heavy inclination toward the culture of white males). Liu praises Hirsch for at least engendering an interest in continuing education, and for sparking discussions about the American identity.

Hear the interview:

Today, Eric Liu wants to make a new list while remedying what he sees as an original flaw: a list of essential facts representing a diverse population such as the United States must not be generated by one guy, but by a comparably diverse set of contributors.

With the help of the Aspen Institute, Liu has launched a project to crowdsource basic knowledge. He’s asking Americans to submit top ten lists of concepts or facts that are central to being American (from Melville to Monday Night Football); and has even enlisted the help of E.D. Hirsch, himself. Eric Liu’s essay and forms for submitting top ten lists of facts every American should know are available at The Atlantic.


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