“What Every American Should Know” is a project of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program, created in 2014 to explore how, in an age of increasing diversity and widening inequality, this country can cultivate a sense of shared destiny and common civic purpose.
The What Every American Should Know Library Series aims to bring this national conversation to a local level to spark creative conversations about local and national identity, expand and diversify the concept of what it means to be a member of the community and to be an American, and to collect these ideas in an aggregated list of What Every American Should Know.
In 1987, E.D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy, which claimed that there is a foundation of common knowledge every American should know – and included a list of 5,000 cultural and historical terms. Some celebrated what he chose to include, and some attacked him for what he did not. Hirsch landed in the middle of the culture wars, and debate over his list initiated a powerful conversation about American culture and identity.
A generation has passed since then. In that time, we have experienced enormous cultural fragmentation across our country. We are experiencing growing diversity, demographic flux, and social changes. Meanwhile, wealth and opportunity are becoming more concentrated, leading to unprecedented inequality. The mainstream American identity of the past no longer fits our new America. For many, it never did.
In our sweeping and turbulent nation, how can we cultivate a sense of shared culture and identity? The more fragmented we become, the more necessary it is for us to have a common vocabulary – a shared set of cultural and historical references – that we can all collect and understand. When we understand this vocabulary, we can better understand one another, and the many corners of our shared communities. And when we gain this understanding, we also gain access to opportunity. We can claim voice and power as community members, and we can support each other by doing so.
It is in the spirit of these questions that the What Every American Should Know initiative was created. We are crowdsourcing ideas from individuals around the country about what terms and references we all need to know in order to be aware, effective, and engaged citizens. We are inviting submissions in the form of top 10 lists, which are then aggregated into a national list of what every American should know.
It’s time that we update this common knowledge – what we are calling “the list of what every American should know” – to reflect our reality. The list ought to contain things that are important not just for elites, but for anyone in our new America.
As Eric Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute American Citizenship and Identity program, describes, being American should mean being part of a “common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts.” Being civically and culturally literate means appreciating the value and the context of those many parts, even when they are not our own.
So that is why we created the What Every American Should Know Library Series. We are traveling around the country to ask community members: What do you think every American should know? And we are having these conversations at local libraries, unique in stature as trusted and safe community gathering spaces.
Our first event in this series took place in September in partnership with Anythink Libraries and Rocky Mountain PBS just outside of Denver, Colorado. Social and economic disparities are often even higher within cities than they are nationally. The Denver area is no exception, and recent social and economic shifts have given rise to new divisions and surfaced longstanding tensions.
For the past several years, an influx of new residents have landed in Denver. The population has mushroomed and demographics have shifted. Development has surged, and affordable housing options have all but vanished. Homelessness has grown by 10 percent in the last two years, but the city is cracking down on encampments, leaving few options. Areas of the economy are growing quickly, but the growth is narrow, concentrating not only wealth but also opportunity. Income inequality, particularly when comparing rural areas to urban areas, is extreme. Meanwhile, racial inequalities have grown.
Denver-area residents proved they are not willing to accept this status quo during the first What Every American Should Know Library Series event. Elected officials, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, historians, authors, students, and engaged community members gathered to add their voice and local perspective to this national conversation. Moderated by award-winning journalist John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS, the evening consisted of various segments of small and large group discussion centered on the need for and value of civic and cultural literacy in the context of the Denver area.
One community member, Bob Baron, said his favorite part of the event was the opportunity to get to know the people seated around him, and to hear their perspectives. His list of 10 things that every American should know includes:
- The Constitution
- The Declaration of Independence
- The Gettysburg Address
- Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
- “America the Beautiful”
- The Marshall Plan
- Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
- Thoreau on Civil Disobedience
- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Participants highlighted a range of topics, from American historical references to more recent cultural references, including Broadway, Black Lives Matter, civic engagement, the Constitution, Ferguson, and local policies.
These conversations did not end when the program closed, and we hope that they continue for years to come. This endeavor can only be successful if all voices are included. Failing to do so is failing to activate our nation’s greatest asset – our diversity – and condemning ourselves to never reach our full potential as Americans.