To some degree, E. D. Hirsch’s contention that we need a type of “cultural literacy” or common coinage to communicate with one another intelligently—his notion of the liberal arts—is akin to applying a cosmetic. Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams
) would have viewed Hirsch's project skeptically. Adams possessed “cultural literacy” in abundance yet he pauses at the end of each chapter in his carefully wrought autobiography, to remark that his education, so far, “was a failure.” What Adams seeks far transcends the simple “stockpile” approach to liberal education. Adams recognizes that cultural literacy must be processed and integrated before it is of any worth. For Henry Adams, education will always be a failure in the sense that it cannot be possessed completely, nor should it.
Hirsch has defined culture as, “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted though language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” Hirsch goes on to say that “Culture also refers to refined music, art, and literature; one who is well versed in these subjects is considered “cultured.”
The book's appendix provides a 63-page list of items of the names, concepts, phrases, etc., that Hirsch feels every cultured/educated American should know. For example, here’s short excerpt from the “P” list:
Princess and the Pea