Arts, Column

The Importance of Cultural Literacy

There is a certain amount of cultural literacy demanded of people. Without it, one will most certainly become a cultural pariah in a group of friends. As people spit movie lines at you, their meaning and importance seemingly fall on deaf ears. To a certain extent, we have all been on the outside of a conversation about a show or movie we have not seen. Any attempt to engage is as futile as a professor asking you to elaborate on a book you have not read. But the cases I am referring to are not so slight and demand further examination. These individuals are truly on the cultural fringe.

My roommate is one such individual.

He has never seen The Dark Knight.

In many ways, I am jealous of him, because he has a great experience coming in his future that will most certainly impress. It is hard to forget the emotions and feelings of an initial viewing of a cultural icon. But I got that experience back in 2008. I guess I’m just “ahead of the curve.”

I look at cultural literacy as akin to political literacy. When one matures to a certain point, socially, it is demanded that one keeps up, at least in small ways, with the political sphere. A person is blissfully unaware of the current presidential election would garner as similar reaction from me as if they said they have not seen Star Wars or The Dark Knight.

Seeded in our societal framework are these notions of culture. The common knowledge that one gets from watching a movie such as The Dark Knight is a gateway to conversation with just about anyone.

In France, among their culture, this kind of commonplace knowledge is expected to maintain topical and engaging conversations. Failure to do so demonstrates a lack of maturity, ahistoricity, or absent-mindedness when it comes to keeping a pulse on what is happening around you.

The French aside, Americans too should maintain a certain amount of cultural awareness and literacy. The fact that my roommate has never seen The Dark Knight, though surprising, is not completely ostracizing. He is aware of the quotes, has seen clips, and is generally aware of the significance of the film. I would argue that this is no substitute for watching the film in its entirety, but it is better than nothing.

With that being said, he should see the film.

The idea of cultural literacy stems from the idea of bettering oneself. Through our experience, through our investigations and pursuits of knowledge, we are seeking to become less ignorant than we were before. Though it is not possible to attain all forms of information and revel in each morsel of art the world has to offer, each stride to do so is one in the right direction.

In looking for all this art, we are better able to ascertain where the cultural scaffolding lies now—that is, where we are building, improving, and advancing. In novel film techniques, television narratives, or technological innovations, investigation into what is popular often allows us to see what is changing.

But keeping up with the times is not only a means of watching the cultural world around us change, but also a way to see how we change as well. In my own life, I have found myself at odds concerning the popular opinions regarding film and television. The knowledge of what is popular does allow for somewhat of a hipsterish critique of what is popular, but it allows us to draw a line in the sand nonetheless. With each artistic acquisition of knowledge, we are defining our own tastes. Each viewing or experience details further where we stand in reference to the mainstream.

The pursuit of this cultural fluency is also fun. Rarely does engaging the culture fail to bring about some conversation. We are able to connect with others through shared experiences. We can agree, dissent, and argue with passion about art, but shake off the vitriol that would be associated with a political conversation. But just because it is less caustic and serious doesn’t mean it is not just as important.

Featured Image By Warner Bros. Pictures

September 25, 2016