Talking points

The lexicon of American culture seems to shift as rapidly as dotcoms turn into dot-bombs. But 80 percent of the knowledge that makes someone culturally literate has at least a 100-year life span, a new book posits.

About 500 entries have been added in "The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" (Houghton Mifflin), coauthored by E.D. Hirsch Jr. The original 1988 version was a flash point in the debate over multicultural education.

Professor Hirsch of the University of Virginia argues that the ability to read well – which everyone agrees is an important skill – can't be achieved without foundational knowledge drawn from myths, historical events, artistic and literary works, famous people's achievements, and scientific concepts.

Critics contended that the first book didn't include enough references to the contributions of minority groups. But it had enough appeal to land on the bestseller lists.

Since then, the dictionary has been adapted for Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Perhaps Britain will be next: On Friday, Prince Charles complained that students aren't learning enough about their nation's history and said that "the crucial shared link between generations" is being "ruptured."

The updated version for the US comes at a fitting time. The past year, with its constant debates about homeland security and foreign policy, has renewed people's desire to be more conversant with key cultural reference points. The dictionary offers, for instance, a refresher on the "four freedoms" President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of as worth defending just before the US entered World War II. It's somehow no longer satisfying if the only common denominator people can find to talk about at a party is the latest popular TV show.

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