Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cultural Literacy

If you're one of those people who came from a very sheltered community, how did you get yourself up to speed on all the general knowledge which you were missing out on?

For everyone in the world, there will always be chunks of cultural literacy which are missing from their lexicon, and it can take quite a bit of work to plug those holes. But for people from insular, ethnocentric societies, the problem tends to be far worse. Depending on what kind of community one comes from, the lack of familiarity with commonly accepted knowledge can be a formidable challenge to overcome.

For myself, the realization that I had so much to learn came about as I gradually expanded my social circle from the close-knit group of fellow chareidi yeshiva people to more modern-orthodox groups and then to secular and even non-Jewish circles. When I was chareidi, I knew pretty much everything that I needed to in regards to being able to be socially and culturally conversant. Our interactions tended to stay focused on the goings-on of our world (yeshivish politics, halachic issues, simcha developments, chulent recipes, etc.). When it occasionally ventured into other arenas, such as in regards to political or scientific issues, even though I might not have been too familiar with it, I knew I could quickly figure out what page I was expected to be on by simply listening carefully to my peers. When issues arose that were outside our purview, the general attitude was one of dismissiveness - "Why should we worry about such narishkeit?" - and so it never concerned me very much that I was wholly ignorant about so much that the rest of the world found important.

When I first started to mingle with non-chareidim, there were often moments of utter confusion for me. On one occasion, a coworker mentioned how someone at work looked like Jennifer Aniston, and seeing the blank look on my face, she said "You know, from Friends." I innocently replied, "I don't know her. She's not one of my friends." Ignorance about pop cultural icons was often a source of mild embarrassment for me, but I recognized that being unfamiliar with celebrities and TV shows was really not that important in the grand scheme of things, and other than having to put up with the surprised reactions of my friends, it didn't really bother me too much.

Also a frequent source of discomfort to me was my lack of familiarity with established cultural institutions, both the real kind and the figurative. Admitting to not having a college degree might elicit a merely condescending glance, but revealing that you don't even know that Yale and Harvard are the foremost American universities is a special kind of faux pas. During a discussion where a friend was lambasting a certain newspaper's tendency to editorialize news reporting, I innocently remarked that I didn't see what the problem was. After all, what was wrong with a newspaper reflecting the owners views? Indeed, in the world I came from, that was the very point of publishing anything - to promote one's ideology. The concept of journalistic objectivity was entirely foreign to me. Over time I stumbled upon many other commonly used cultural terms of which I was not just unfamiliar, but some that I hadn't even heard uttered before: GOP, baby-boomer, Bohemian, filibuster, post-modernism, transsexual, Nietzsche, racism, separation of powers, imperialism, Kafkaesque, genetics. All these words were coming up in conversations and the things I was reading, but what did they really mean, and how in the world was I supposed to find out? (This was before Wikipedia was as good as it is now.) The truth is, probably most of the other people around me were as unfamiliar with this stuff as I was, but at the time, I was too intimidated by my own ignorance to even consider this.

Even when it came to areas of Jewish knowledge I was falling short. Although I had never been one of the powerhouses of the beis medrash, I was still fluent enough in the ideas, personas, and foundations of that intellectual sphere to move within it comfortably. But I was quickly discovering once I stepped out of my chareidi comfort zone that the range of my Jewish knowledge was extremely narrow, and so many of the things that I had assumed were universally accepted were actually far from that. Ok, I didn't expect MO communities to accept Rav Elyashuv as the godol hador, but do you really mean to tell me that there are sources to justify not believing in a global flood or that Noach miraculously saved all the animals in the teiva? How can any frum person ever say such a thing?!

However, even with all that, what was most disconcerting of all was the increasingly frequent revelations of just how abysmally ignorant I was in regards to the many significant contemporary and historical issues that were relevant to my life. For the first time in my life, I started really participating in discussions about issues, and I quickly realized that I didn't know squat about the most fundamental elements of any issue. When it came to politics, I didn't have even a basic understanding of how the government worked, or what the different parties stood for. When discussing historical events, I was forced to acknowledge that my views were usually nothing more than superficial rehashings of what my teachers had told me, and that I didn't really know much about the issues at all. Once, in the middle of a heated debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I suddenly realized that I couldn't even name the different Arab-Israeli wars, what they were fought over, and what their outcomes were. Over and over I found myself facing the sad realization that I barely ever knew enough about a topic to converse about it with the barest minimum of familiarity. In so many areas - history, science, Jewish thought, world affairs, basic geography, notable figures and events, and so many more topics that I was finding myself exposed to - I was horrifically, abysmally, ignorant. The realization was both humbling and terrifying.

And so I set about trying to learn about everything I was missing. I started downloading Billboard top hits of the 90's and 80's to find out about popular music (Napster was just taking off then). I started watching the famous shows and the classic movies that everyone always brought up in conversation. (The West Wing was a great introduction to politics). I went to the library and when I couldn't find any beginners books on the topics I wanted to learn, I went to the children section and took out books from there. (I highly recommend this series for learning US History.) I visited museums (and spoke to the curators when I could). I read newspapers as much as possible. I participated in online discussion groups devoted to certain topics. I looked things up online whenever possible. I found smart people who liked to talk a lot and listened to them. Slowly and gradually I managed to slightly fill up the gaping holes in my cultural literacy so I could converse with the average educated person without sounding like a total fool. I became more adept at assessing what was actually common knowledge and what was more specialized information and by doing so, became more confident with saying, "I'm not familiar with this topic. Can you give me some background about it?" The more I learned, the more I discovered how much I was ignorant of. And the more ideas I became exposed to, the more I came to realize just how inadequate my critical thinking faculties had been until then.

Naturally, there are still vast swaths of cluelessness in my mind. But my life now is such that I'm no longer as urgently concerned with turning those desolate patches into vibrant meadows of intellectual ferment. Knowing about what everyone else considers essential is not as important to me as simply learning interesting things that catch my fancy. However, I can't help wondering, if one were to make a list of all the areas of knowledge which are important for an engaged and informed person of the western world to be familiar with, what should go on that list? And what did you focus on when you decided to become a more educated person?

Photo credit: flickr user James Yeung

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M said...

I'd say "western world" might be a bit of a misnomer -- what's culturally relevant for someone living in New York is not the same as someone living in Nunavut or Chiapas.

Ignorance really does know no bounds though -- sad to see what became of the "the people of the book" in most haredi circles.

Baal Habos said...

This is multi-faceted, of course. For example, I feel like a cultural illiterate because I don't follow sports. And just imagine what a BT feels like as they get closer and closer to the inner circles of yiddishkeit. As in:

q) How many candles do we light tonight?
a) Last night was three.

frumJD said...

I've been reading your blog for a little while now, and it never ceases to amaze me how different our upbringings were. I grew up in very "chareidi" environment, yet I had a full secular education, went to college with full support of my family and friends (though going to grad school was slightly more controversial), and consider myself pretty culturally literate (except some areas of philosophy that I never had time to get into). I realize you had numerous reasons for leaving, but do you ever wonder if things may have been different if you had grown up in an environment that embraced the teachings and philosophy of R' Shamshon Rephael Hirsch?

Moshe said...


I'd draw a distinction between high-culture and low-culture (and divide middlebrow culture between them).

Coming out of a chareidi high school you can't relate to much of the cultural universe of a kid who just came out of a secular high school. This speaks to a lacuna in your knowledge and familiarity with lowbrow culture. Their emotional worlds and how they express these emotions and act on them are entirely foreign. Their intergender relationships, how they view their future, how they find meaning, what they do with their time, what they consider right and wrong, etc, etc, etc - are all a mystery.

Then there's middle and high brow culture such as being able to use the term Kafkaesque, knowing who Nietzsche was and understanding various political views and what drives them. These middle and how brow cultural subjects are things that the average secular kid probably has even less familiarity with than the average non-chassidish black-hatter. High schoolers just aren't that sophisticated or non-solipsistic to know that much about the grand variety of thought and subjects available for consideration.

So - in answer to your question - I would say that my familiarity with middle and high brow culture came about in a similar manner to yours and in a similar manner to all autodidacts everywhere. Had I have remained a black-hatter there's little question that I would be less versatile but I'm pretty sure that I would have still grown in my knowledge of the world and its variety of subjects.

As for my familiarity with low-brow culture, I can't say that I have much. I'm proud of the fact that I have no idea what the astrological signs are or when the varying sports seasons begin and end. Then again, as a child I never really fit in well with my chareidi counterparts either and didn't understand their culture or drives so this likely speaks to my personality and inherent interests and reference points than to any distinct set of knowledge points.

Back to your article then, growing up how we did made it difficult for us to mingle easily with the hamon am but, I believe, gave us a slight advantage in being able to mingle with intellectuals. We grew up steeped in cognitive, emotional and ritualistic activity and, as such, could more naturally relate to Big Thinkers, Artists and the like than could most people who grew up steeped in a culture that worships youth and its ephemeral interests.

All in all I'd say that (like homeschooled kids) our unique background gave us a leg up in terms of being able to expand the versatility of our cultural world. Id' be curious to know to what degree you agree.


The Hedyot said...

> do you ever wonder if things may have been different if you had grown up in an environment that embraced the teachings and philosophy of R' Shamshon Rephael Hirsch?

I'm asked that all the time. I wrote a bit about it here.

Jewish Atheist said...

Interesting post, thanks.

I was lucky in that I grew up left-wing modern Orthodox so my learning curve was much smaller, but I still had a few things to learn:

Dating --

Do I tell this woman I'm a virgin before we have sex? (Yeah probably.) Am I going to be bad at it? (Hard to be "bad" at it, just inexperienced.) Is it really normal to have sex on the 3rd date? (Depends on the girl.) What's the etiquette when you/she stays over after sex? (Wing it.) Do we have to hide it around others? (No.)

Food --

How the hell do you peel and eat shrimp? Which of these dozens of choices of food will I like? What restaurants are good? What's on the menu of these dozens of chain restaurants that the rest of America know by heart? How big is a Whopper? (Big enough.) Is bacon good on grilled cheese? (No.)

Friends and friends' friends and friends' parents--

Who do I hug and when? How much personal disclosure is normal? How often should I call, etc.?

Also, just the sheer honesty of people in the outside world. You can just be REAL with people in a way that's difficult in the Orthodox world, because everybody's so worried about how they are supposed to be that they never even get to know how they are. And everybody's so worried about what the neighbors will think that they won't admit even to themselves what they really want and like and think and believe.

Non-Orthodox Jews:

Do I keep saying shabbos or start saying shabbat? Do they know what I'm talking about if I mention Pesach? Or Purim? Wait, what? Bat mitzvah girls read the Torah? Rabbis are almost like ordinary people? Weird.

The Hedyot said...

JA - You bring up the whole class of issues related to practical aspects of adjusting to a new culture. This is something I also dealt with a lot, but didn't find it to be too troublesome because I had a very gradual transition over the course of a few years. There were some notable hiccups like when I freaked out the first time I saw my MO girlfriend give another guy a hug.

But I was interested here in exploring the variety of intellectual hurdles that sheltered people have to overcome.

The Hedyot said...

> These middle and low brow cultural subjects are things that the average secular kid probably has even less familiarity with than the average non-chassidish black-hatter.

Very true. But this was going on at a time when I was in my early twenties, and socially mingling with professionals and highly educated college graduates. I'm not saying those particular terms came up a lot. They were just examples of some of the things I encountered on my intellectual explorations.

The Hedyot said...

> I'd say that our unique background gave us a leg up in terms of being able to expand the versatility of our cultural world. Id' be curious to know to what degree you agree.

I agree that coming out of the intellectual environment of the litvish world had a lot to do with trying to get a handle on the intellectual aspects of general culture. I think part of me probably felt like I had to prove that I wasn't just doing it to watch movies and have fun.

In other ways though, the analytic background was a hindrance for me. I can not tell you how many times I had someone say to me, "Stop thinking about it so much. There's no right or wrong way to do this. You just figure it out as you go along."

One other way that I think the yeshiva background played a part in my intellectual development was that I never entirely abandoned the skepticism that frummies have for the outside world, so instead of just eagerly gobbling up every aspect of secular culture, I tended to approach it with a much more jaundiced eye before allowing myself to fully embrace it. I kinda felt like it had to prove that it was really worth getting into before I got involved with it. So even though eventually I might have come to appreciate the idea or practice, it was usually with a more nuanced and balanced attitude than wholehearted acceptance.

On Her Own said...

I really enjoyed this post.

Since I grew up MO and started to hang out with non-Orthodox and non-Jewish people when I was a teenager, my adjustment was a lot smoother.

That said, I always feel sort of clueless when people start talking about all of the cultural phenomena that center around childhood & Christmas, etc.

G*3 said...

> The more I learned, the more I discovered how much I was ignorant of.

That may be a cliché, but it’s so true. And it never ends.

I grew up in a somewhat more liberal family than yours seems to have been, so I knew a little about pop culture. But I didn’t discover “goyish” music until I was in my early twenties, and I was surprised to discover that the songs weren’t all about sex. To this day, I’m awkward in social situations with people not from the little sub-group I grew up in. But then, I tend to be awkward even with people from that little sub-group, so I’m not sure that counts.

What’s important to know? It’s hard to say. The intellectual elitist in me wants to say critical thinking, science, history, etc., but in terms of relating to others common cultural references are probably more important.

The Hedyot said...

Yeah, I know how much of a cliché it sounds like, but it was really true. Every time I approached a topic to learn about, I discovered that to proper understand it, I needed to step back to a broader context or to see how it related to a similar issue, and that took me to other realms. This went on indefinitely.

For example, with the Arab-Israeli conflict - When I was first exploring this, the whole Golan issue was very much in the news. So to become informed about that I realized that I needed to learn the history of that region. But as I started doing that, I realized that to properly understand its history, I needed to learn about the conflict with Syria and Lebanon, which took me back through a number of wars and conflicts, all of which had their own tangents. As I read about the issue further, I found it constantly referencing the land for peace deals with Egypt, so then it took me in that direction. And on and on.

And as I read more and more, and heard cogent counter-arguments to established ideas I had long been told I discovered just how weak the instruction I had been given on the topic really was. (And how poor my critical thinking skills were.)

Garnel Ironheart said...

> The concept of journalistic objectivity was entirely foreign to me.

That's okay. It's foreign to most journalists too.

I mean really, you didn't know who Jennifer Aniston was... and that matters? Does it matter knowing where the Knicks are in the standings or who's left on Project Runway?
My last TV broke 7 years ago and I can't say that my life has been poorer for not keeping up with 9 different sitcoms and dramas all at once. In fact, most cultural references are vapid, vacuous excuses that show people would rather watch the idiot box than interact on an intelligent level.
The sad truth about secular culture is that, in most cases, the chareidim are missing nothing.

Off the Derech said...

>That's okay. It's foreign to most journalists too.

Pot, meet kettle.

mOOm said...

Well, this just like moving to a foreign country - I was born in Britain and have also lived for several years in Israel (starting in 1983), the US (first in 1990), and Australia (1996). I got up to speed with cultural background in these places to large extent by reading newspapers (e.g. in the US the New York Times, Ma'ariv in Israel) including weekend magazine articles all those kinds of things. You can learn a lot from newspapers.

I grew up MO but went to ordinary state schools in England. But there was a lot to learn about history, culture, and politics in all these countries.

interpreter said...

The process you went through is typical for adapting from one culture to another.

And I suppose, that in the end you found out that many people who grew up in "typical US culture" know a lot less than you.

I think that people interested in foreign cultures tend to take this leap of getting into surroundings where they feel completely ignorant and inadequate. With the result that in the end they will know about both cultures.

When you learn a foreign language, it is exactely the same. It is not so easy to learn to read you neighbouring country's newspaper, not only because of the language, but also because you missed "what came before".You are not familiar with names of persons, institutions, places etc.

I work as an interpreter (doing simultanous interpretation) and I am often appalled that speakers in conferences do not take this into consideration: They provide the public with details they cannot even understand, because they are not from the same country.

Therefore, I decided to have respect for any person not knowing details about my culture, since I know how relative the "cultural norms" are...

And I think that people not aware of this phenomenon are stupid, or live in a cultural monoculture.

The Hedyot said...

> I mean really, you didn't know who Jennifer Aniston was... and that matters?

Did you not read what I said? I'll repeat it for you - "I recognized that being unfamiliar with celebrities and TV shows was really not that important in the grand scheme of things, didn't really bother me too much."

Please don't make me repeat myself again.

Anyway, the point wasn't that it "mattered" that I didn't know a particular pop culture reference. The point was that not knowing cultural references can be an embarrassing thing. For all I knew, Jenifer Aniston could have been a Nobel Prize winner.

For someone that doesn't have any of the cultural familiarity, whenever one encounters a situation where they don't know something that others are taking for granted, one has no way of knowing if it's something trivial and unimportant like a TV show or if it's something basic and expected like the name of our country's capitol.

interpreter said...

To be honest: I don't know jennifer aniston, nor "friends" although I grew up in this culture. It just does not interest me.

And this is what I referred to when I said that in the end, you probably noticed you knew more than them: those "cultural references" are quite individual. Some people (a small minority) loves opera, others love soap operas, some read, some don't, some are interested in science, the majority is not.

So in reality, the "cultural literate person" as you imagine it does not exists. But when you tally up all the things that x, y z know and you do not, you come to a quite impressive amount.

The reality is that x does not know what y knows and does not know what z knows...

But as an outsider, this is quite difficult to estimate.

G*3 said...

Interpreter, you’re right that cultural references can be very particular to a tiny subgroup, but there are also things that are considered general knowledge. For example, what day comes after Friday? There are many frum little kids who would answer, “Shabbos.” Sure, by the time they’re older they’ll know what Saturday is, but that’s just an extreme example to make a point.

Sara said...

It does seem like for women, clothing is a serious issue, possible because female norms for dress tend to be more nuanced, and less clueless is generally tolerated of women with regard to personal appearance.

As for government, politics, history, etc., it took a long time (really still a work in progress) to identify and reexamine biases in which I no longer wish to participate, but basic structural knowledge is something I did acquire before leaving the frum world. Similarly, my English language skills were developed beyond those of most of my peers in college, whereas it seems that this is not often the case for men who have left. More secular education for girls, generally.

Tova said...

Thankfully, I never had this problem. I was blessed with parents who encouraged writing, music practice (drums and singing, in my case), library visits, museum trips and question-asking.

I can relate to what you said about listening to people, though. It's well-known that I love to talk, and many a frum person (even when I was still at Bais Yaakov!) has asked me to give information on some subject.

People would say to me, dozens of times over the course of my high school career, 'You go to Bais Yaakov. How do you know all this stuff?' My answer was always the same: 'Bais Yaakov is not my education. *I* am my education. If I want to know something, I go and learn about it instead of letting my teachers limit me.'

It makes me very happy to see that you went on a 'knowledge quest' of your own, Hedyot. Sir Francis Bacon said something I've always liked: 'Knowledge is power.'

interpreter said...

"Interpreter, you’re right that cultural references can be very particular to a tiny subgroup, but there are also things that are considered general knowledge."

Well, let me tell you first that I found your post very interesting and inspiring.

I would say "general knowledge" is in general restricted to a precise country, epoch, culture.

Therefore I would assume that there is no such thing as "human general culture". And even if we try to define "universal human rights" now, they were not applicable a few centuries ago, nor are they in the whole world.

So in general, when you delve into a new language, you are immediately identifiable as a foreigner and people will be somewhat understanding if you flout the cultural norms. But as soon as you DO speak the language, all indulgence has gone, and they will take you for mad if you don't get it.

This is why I learned to downgrade my language skills in some circumstances.

By the way:
In her book "Jungle Child", Sabine Kuegler describes a cultural perplexity quite similar to yours: she grew up in the jungle in Iryan Jaya, as a daughter of German missionaries, and was sent to a Swiss boarding school at age 15. She spoke the language, but lacked references in
-timing and punctuality
- buying and selling habits (what? you cannot haggle? How can I get the best price?)
- pop culture (where she fought her deficits exactely the way you describe, by reading and ferocious learning, which is completely atypical for pop culture)
and others.

Furthermore, she had some strange habits, like checking her shoes for scorpions before she wore them.

Joshua said...

Eh, the vast majority of this pop culture really is a waste of time though. A lot of people who aren't frum don't pay any attention (To use just one example, I've heard of Aniston. I'll take your word on it that she's from Friends.). Taking the effort to actively pick up pop culture seems to be a waste. I'd be far more concerned about the fact that many charedim are missing basic knowledge of math and science (the general public is often but the charedim seem to often be a bit worse). Pop culture simply shouldn't be a high priority for anyone.

Sarah said...

I'm surprised to hear that you didn't know about genetics. Genetic diseases are certainly known and talked about (if discreetly) in the Ashkenazi world, including the Charedi -- and it comes up when talking about shidduchim. Surely you knew that certain conditions can be passed on from one parent to a child, or from both parents, even if you didn't know the mechanisms for how that happens?

I don't have much to add re: what should be included on "the list." I feel SO SO SO incredibly grateful and privileged to have grown up in a MO community where I received a terrific secular education and was encouraged to go to college (and graduate school). There's plenty I don't know about living a secular lifestyle, such as those mentioned by J.A. (and, being still MO, don't really feel interested in learning, though of course I'm mildly curious), but in terms of intellectual endeavors I feel either well-trained (in certain fields) or free to study what I want, when I want. I have a lot of gratitude to my parents and MO school for instilling in me that feeling of intellectual freedom.

Shpitzle said...

Would you have known Neitsche if you had graduated from a secular HS?

I would suppose you would. Secular life doesn't rob the intellectual kids of their ability to think by instead filling their heads with an ensembles of Anistons. Secular exposure/education dabbles with everything. One's individual curiosity is given the opportunity to ignite on a vast number of subjects. If you're intrigued by a subject then you have the resources to pursue it in depth. Most common kids are intrigued by light, low brow pop candy. A society can't turn simpletons into sophisticates.

I'd have given a lot to be allowed to dabble with subjects early on. My interests (or disinterests) were apparent as soon as I had the ability to learn a nugget on the subject. Once I knew what I don't know, I knew if I wanted to pursue it and what questions to ask. I've also used children's books and many other creative aides to cast a wide 'patch' on a big hole of ignorance before filling it with more detail.

By the way, I don't think coming from intellectually rigorous frum background is an advantage, because although you're taught to think critically, you're discouraged from thinking independently. It may be a challenge to learn to rely on your very own judgment. The expression "what do you think?" which I consistently use as a mother, was one I had to learn myself.

Freethinking Upstart said...

Terrific article. Someone should put together a wiki page for those who leave Orthodoxy with a list of books movies, popular phrases, popular people, etc. to become bare bones literate.

Any takers?

The Hedyot said...

What do you think should go in that list?

Freethinking Upstart said...

I'm not really the one to ask, but for example I might list the following on TV shows to become familiar with:

1. Seinfeld
2. Family Guy
3. The Simpsons
4. Friends
5. SNL

I liked your recommendation of The History of US.

The Hedyot said...

I'm not so sure about TV shows being important in and of themselves, but I do feel that watching Seinfeld and Friends gave me a tremendous education in and of itself about American norms and cultures.

If all you want to do is just be familiar with the characters, one needs only to watch a few episodes of each.

Freethinking Upstart said...

Agreed... Though TV is a large part of American Culture and those shows can be a tool for introduction to other parts of American Culture, my main point was to give an example of Top 5 lists for Cultural Literacy that this wiki page might consist of.