Civic Action

What Every American Should Know

August 10, 2021  • Aspen Community Programs

Featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer” Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of “The Moor’s Account” Laila Lalami and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of “There There” Tommy Orange, in conversation with Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program Executive Director and Citizen University Founder Eric Liu. In 1987, E.D. Hirsch sparked a national debate with his book “Cultural Literacy,” claiming that there is a foundation of common knowledge every American should know — and codifying it in a list of 5,000 facts and cultural references. Hirsch’s list was attacked, celebrated, and much discussed. Today, amidst giant demographic and technological shifts, we need such common knowledge more than ever, and it needs to be radically more diverse and inclusive. What should today’s Americans know to be civically and culturally literate?

Virtual event


Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe NationHarper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, a work of nonfiction called Conditional Citizens, was published by Pantheon in September 2020.

Tommy Orange’s There There is a national bestseller that won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the American Book Award. It was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The audiobook for There There was a 2019 finalist (Multi-Voiced Performance). Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and was born and raised in Oakland, California.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He is the author of The Committed, which continues the story of The Sympathizer, awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, alongside seven other prizes. He is also the author of the short story collection The Refugees; the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, a finalist for the National Book Award; and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. He lives in Los Angeles.

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker; The Gardens of Democracy (co-authored with Nick Hanauer); You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen; and his most recent, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy, a New York Times New & Notable Book. He has been selected as an Ashoka Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is featured on the PBS documentary American Creed and is a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Liu served as a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and later as the President’s deputy domestic policy adviser. He was later appointed by President Obama to serve on the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He and his family live in Seattle.