“Darmok” and Cultural Literacy

Every so often, I’ll get that homework assignment that will allow me to incorporate Star Trek somehow.  My most recent Senior Seminar assignment is to read Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but the premise is that in order for effective communication to take place, everyone must possess the same cultural “background information” in order to go beyond the text and pick up its nuances. It seems that as a nation, we are losing our ability to read and write effectively because we’re not all being taught the same relevant information, so we lose that common frame of reference that allows us to know more than just what the words are saying.

This will sound familiar to just about any Trekkie. For those who are new to our cult, I’m talking about “Darmok,” an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that deals with much the same theme. As one would reasonably assume, when you travel in space, the people you meet don’t always speak the same language as you do. On Star Trek, they solve this problem with the Universal Translator, a device that allows everyone in the room to understand each other by allowing the listener to hear what is being said in his or her native language. Normally this works out okay, but when Captain Picard meets up with the Tamarians, he’s got a problem: the Tamarians speak entirely in metaphor. The Universal Translator converts the Tamarians’ words to English, but the entire meaning is lost because no one on the Enterprise has a frame of reference for what they mean.This YouTube video contains edited clips from the episode that show Picard’s struggles to understand his Tamarian companion.

Hirsch is asserting that here in the U.S., we’re doing a minor version of this now because we’re not all being taught the same things in the early years of school. It certainly sheds new light on those situations when I’m working with a student in the writing center and wondering, “Didn’t you learn this? Didn’t they teach you that?” It would baffle me that they didn’t know simple grammar rules I had internalized long ago or facts that I thought were common knowledge past a certain grade in school. And I’m a little stunned to contemplate that the answer to “Didn’t they teach you that?” is more and more likely to be “No.”

So much for Gene Roddenberry’s vision that humanity will eventually rise above itself and live in a world with no war, no poverty, no hunger, and every child will know how to read.

I’ll admit that maybe that’s a little alarmist. It would seem that awareness of this problem is half the battle, that it is surmountable if we can stick to some agreed-upon conventions of what we, as members of a culture, need to know in order to function properly within the culture.

Captain Picard eventually found a way to communicate. I’m sure we can, too.


~ by Shanna Gilkeson on January 27, 2013.

2 Responses to ““Darmok” and Cultural Literacy”

  1. This is a great comparison to get at Hirsch’s point. Of course, the million-dollar question is whether or not we CAN “stick to some agreed-upon conventions of what we, as members of a culture, need to know in order to function properly within the culture.” As our debates in class would suggest, this is a huge and thorny question. However, I think it leads to more than simply surprise or disappointment when we encounter people who do not have this thorough basis of common knowledge, and this, I think, is what is lacking in Hirsch’s book. We need a better articulation of what is LOST through this lack of a universal cultural literacy, in order to make it clearer why it might be necessary to try to come to consensus about such a list in the first place.

    • Agreed. At the time I wrote this, I had only read Chapter One and maybe the beginning of Chapter Two in Hirsch. I hadn’t yet discovered all of the difficulties the book was raising, though the “Darmok” thing continued to resonate as I read. I may re-evaluate and revisit this in the future if we come upon a week where nothing else in class is really grabbing me to write about,

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