Cultural literacy is fluency in one's own culture, or that of others.
Culture can be defined as the unified pattern of human behavior, belief and knowledge that is transmitted from one generation to the next, or as the group of practices, values, beliefs and goals held in common by an organization or institution that are associated with a particular activity, field or societal characteristic, or those of a racial, religious or social group.
Fluency in human knowledge, belief and behaviour involves cultural and multicultural education. This may be passive and experiential as advocated by John Dewey (1859–1952), a major proponent of both the progressive and progressive-populist philosophies of education during the first half of the 1900s in the United States. Increasingly, school curriculums incorporate citizenship and cultural awareness. It is frequently a requirement for businesses that employees become familiar with and promote the "corporate culture." A precondition for citizenship and naturalization in many countries, including the United States, is cultural awareness of the host country's culture
In his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What every American Needs to Know E. D. Hirsch Jr. used the term "Cultural Literacy" to refer to the concept that citizens in a democracy need to possess a common body of knowledge to communicate effectively, govern themselves and share in society's intellectual and economic rewards. He argued that to participate fully in society, people needed to go beyond learning language. He listed 5,000 cultural terms that Americans should recognize, including dates, historical figures and scientific terms. The approach was adopted by educational policymakers up to the end of the 1990s. Critics argued that the list was too basic and that it failed to consider multicultural diversity. Hirsch, along with Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil, expanded the list in their book The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (revised 1993).
Cultural literacy has been used to counter racism and extremism, such as in black education in the United States, to counteract the effects of segregation, and foster critical approaches to history and politics in schools and academic institutions. These measures for developing cultural literacy have themselves sometimes been accused of fomenting social division.
The development of cultural centers is intended to promote cultural literacy, especially among those whose cultural identity may be threatened or uncertain, such as asylum-seekers from ethnic minority cultures. The development of culturally specific schools was particularly controversial in the United States where there is a strict separation of Church and State. Direct or indirect state funding for religious schools, such as via a voucher scheme allowing parents to choose a religious school, was criticized as promoting specific religious cultures rather than the multicultural non-partisan public schools. However, religious institutions argue that without a religious education members of the religion can become culturally illiterate.
Extracurricular nonvocational activities and communal life are more commonly considered sources of cultural awareness than the classroom or lecture theater. Hirsch adopted the view that cultural knowledge is not limited to factual knowledge, such as the names of former presidents, a national anthem or acorporate slogan, or familiarity with a particular religious dogma or text. It also involves being familiar with informal knowledge and trivia. A lot of subliminal and subtle cultural significance exists in street signs, names, references to popular media such as film stars and, literary, religious or historical references. George P. Lakoff noted that metaphors, idioms, allusions and informal content are often culturally specific, requiring an understanding of their cultural context. They can also give an insight into the society that produced them.
Nevertheless, cultural literacy is closely linked to linguistic ability. Understanding the culture of a country or ethnic group often requires some familiarity with their language. Much cultural context is lost in translation, since the target language frequently has different cultural assumptions and implications than the source language. In his 1929 article "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" Edward Sapir wrote:
"No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached."
As culture extends beyond language, it is possible to experience culture in many non-linguistic ways: visually, physically through architecture or touch, tastes of culturally significant food, such as curry in India, through music and sounds, characteristic smells, and through the ideas, logic and emotions of a culture, which may be independent of its language.
Sociology and anthropology provide a wealth of information on diverse cultures worldwide. Many corporations use this information to facilitate cross-border marketing and negotiations. The increasingly global market has necessitated greater multicultural literacy. The revolutions in travel, communication and information technology compel and enable greater awareness of and insight into diverse cultures.