Over the past decade, cultural literacy has become an important goal (and buzzword) of many in the Academy. This paper has three sections, the first explaining the dilemma in which both modern and I would argue Classical languages find themselves in regard to cultural literacy; the second elaborating on the notion of multiple literacies and explaining this new paradigm; and finally the third addressing how classicists are uniquely positioned to contribute to this discussion.
Even as cultural literacy has gained importance in education, perhaps surprisingly, the study of world languages is becoming increasingly endangered: etc.: our colleagues and administrators frequently underestimate the connection between the teaching of world languages and the acquisition of cultural literacy. Over the same time span, there has been a rising dissatisfaction among modern language educators who rightly perceive that the predominance of oral instruction to the near exclusion of reading and writing in the elementary and intermediate sequence is deleterious for the development of advanced proficiency in the target language and culture and diminishes the study of another language to a skill rather than the highly complex social and cognitive act that it is.
These two concerns are intricately intertwined. Language in its many lexical, grammatical, syntactic, rhetorical, and generic constructions inextricably shapes the stories and cultural narratives that a culture tells about itself. We are in danger if we emphasize language skills without culture, just as much as if we emphasize culture without language skills. With the former, the study of language—Latin or Greek—becomes a means to an end rather than a way of approaching the world that yields new insights. With the latter, our study of ancient cultures then is not grounded in nitty-gritty linguistic elements that not only reveal cultural perspectives, but actually shape them.
Linking the two is hard to do. Yet that is exactly what a number of recent important studies have attempted to do (Kern 2000; Swaffar and Arens 2005; Byrnes, Maxim, and Norris 2010). Kern, for example, argues that a literacy model of teaching and learning another language provides learners with the broadest and deepest exposure to language and culture. Input comes in the form of potentially multiple authors and texts rather than just the teacher and the textbook. Furthermore, authentic literary texts grapple with cultural issues in more complex ways and with highly sophisticated and nuanced language, thus deepening both linguistic and cultural proficiency. Reading and writing about texts, responding to texts, and creating new texts engages learners profoundly because they are given the opportunity to make connections between grammar, discourse, and meaning, between language and culture, and between another culture and their own.
What does this mean for Classicists and where can we fit into this discourse of multiple literacies? On the one hand, “texts are us” and many of us have always focused on ancient texts in their cultural context. We are prepared to contribute to this conversation, offering our long experience working with texts to reveal culture. On the other hand, we too have a split between grammar focused courses in the elementary levels and the literary texts of intermediate and advanced levels. We do not always do a good job of continuing to develop our students’ linguistic and rhetorical capacity throughout the intermediate and advanced levels. Nor do we always ask students to develop multiple literacies: reading, writing, and cultural.
In the final section, I explore how Classicists can take full advantage of this model and make contributions to this ongoing paradigm shift in language teaching.