If you ever watch The Food Network or something similar, you have probably seen Chef Bobby Flay and his “throw down” with a competing chef. Sometimes Bobby goes into a little known neighborhood and challenges a local chef who is famous for a regional dish, sometimes he takes on another famous chef. And you never know who will win.

In this post, Peter Greeene, Pennsylvania high school English teacher, has a throw down with an unnamed Other. That Other is E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch has argued in several well-known books that there are certain facts, ideas, and concepts that every American must know. He calls it cultural literacy. Others might call it background knowledge. In general, I agree with Hirsch’s idea that we need to accumulate background knowledge so as to have a conversation about the past, the present, and the future.

Peter Greene, however, has lost faith in the idea that there are certain things all educated persons must know. He explains why here.

He thinks there might be some things we should all know, but his list is short, and he is conflicted.

He writes:

“I think any person would be better off knowing some Shakespeare. I think every person would benefit from being able to express him/her-self as clearly as possible in writing and speaking. I think there’s a giant cargo-ship-load of literature that has important and useful things to say to various people at various points in their journey through life.

“But this is a fuzzy, individual thing. Think of it as food, the intellectual equivalent of food. Are there foods that everybody would benefit from eating? Wellll…. I would really enjoy a steak, but my wife the vegan would not. And given my physical condition, it might not be the best choice for me. On the other hand, if I haven’t had any protein in a while, it might be great. And a salad might be nice, unless I already had a salad today, because eating a lot of salad has some unpleasant consequences for me. Oh, and I do enjoy a lobster, which is fairly healthy, unless I’m have to eat while I’m traveling– lobster makes very bad road food in the car. You see our problem. We can agree that everybody should eat. I’m not sure we can pick a menu and declare that every single human being would benefit from eating exactly that food at exactly the same time.

“Ditto for The List. I mean, I think everybody should learn stuff. Personally, I’m a generalist, so I think everybody would benefit from learning everything from Hamlet to quantum physics. But then, I know some people who have made the world a better place by being hard core specialists who know nothing about anything outside their field.

“So if you ask me, can I name a list of skills and knowledge areas that every single solitary American must learn, I start to have trouble. Every mechanic, welder, astronaut, teacher, concert flautist, librarian, physicist, neurosurgeon, truck driver, airplane pilot, grocery clerk, elephant trainer, beer brewer, housewife, househusband, politician, dog catcher, cobbler, retail manager, tailor, dentist– what exactly does every single one of those people have to know?”

Maybe we could get gather if we talk about the principles of government. Shouldn’t we all know about the Constitution and Bill of Rights? Aren’t there signal events in American and old history that we should all know about?

Maybe it is just a difference in fields, but I think that history might be less arbitrary than English. Or is it?