E.D. Hirsch, professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, has become famous for his advocacy of “cultural literacy.”

According to Hirsch, “To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” He emphasized that a “shared, canonical knowledge is inherently necessary to a literate democracy,” and that, problematically, many Americans did not fully possess this knowledge. (In one experiment he conducted, his 17 and 18-year-old subjects didn’t know who Grant and Lee were—and those subjects went to school in Richmond, Virginia!)

At the back of his 1987 book entitled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch provided a large list of the terms, references, and ideas that every educated American should be able to recognize and understand. Below, I have provided 50 items from this list. If pressed, how many could you define or briefly explain?


1. acrophobia


2. ad hoc


3. Baconian method


4. Battle of Stalingrad


5. College of Cardinals


6. comme il faut


7. De Gaulle, Charles


8. Doctor Livingstone, I presume?


9. ecumenism


10. Elysian Fields


11. fermentation


12. fringe benefit


13. Ganges River


14. Goebbels, Joseph


15. hedonism


16. Holy Roman Empire


17. in loco parentis


18. I came, I saw, I conquered.


19. Jacob and Esau


20. justification by faith


21. Khomeini, Ayatollah


22. Kitty Hawk


23. Lee, Robert E.


24. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address


25. Madrid


26. montage




28. nebula


29. Occam’s razor


30. OPEC


31. parabola


32. Pope, Alexander


33. realpolitik


34. Remember the Alamo!


35. Sacco-Vanzetti case


36. Stradivarius


37. Taj Mahal (image)


38. tilt at windmills


39. understatement


40. utilitarianism


41. Valley Forge


42. V-J Day


43. War of the Roses


44. Whitney, Eli


45. xenophobia


46. xylem


47. Yorktown, Battle of


48. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.


49. Zeitgeist


50. Zion, Mount