Cultural Literacy – Cultural Studies as Home for the Foreign Languages?


University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg


The #RhodesMustFall campaign launched at the University of Cape Town in April 2015 led not only to the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at that university but also lent urgency to a topic that that long been discussed with varying degrees of intensity at South African universities. The later #Fees MustFall protests in October 2015 initiated by students of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg ensured that the matters of transformation and decolonization of the curriculum as well as structural reform at South African universities remain current issues for debate. The #FeesMustFall movement has taken onboard issues that underpinned the #RhodesMustFall campaign such as “decolonization” of the curriculum and looks to continue as the ongoing #FeesMustFallReloaded shows with the University of the Witwatersrand’s Student Representative Council calling for “free, decolonized and quality education”.

At all South African universities the call has gone out to transform and decolonize the curriculum. The situation of departments teaching European language and literature courses (excluding English for the purposes of this paper, as English is the de facto official language in South Africa and thus occupies a different space to that of the foreign languages) find themselves at first glance in a rather peculiar position. On the one hand they are particularly vulnerable to accusations of “Eurocentrism” by the very fact that the languages they teach as well as much of the literature, have their origins in the countries of Europe. Apart from English, other languages also having a colonial past in Africa are also part of the offering of foreign European languages offered at South African universities, i.e. French and Portuguese. These languages can thus be viewed as “African” languages, too and present opportunities to incorporate Francophone and Lusophone African authors in their curriculum. At the University of the Witwatersrand, for example the Department of French Studies expanded its name to French and Francophone Studies to reflect this reality. The African diaspora in Europe has produced writers of African origin who write in the European languages, too. However, merely replacing authors of European origin with those of African origin, for example, could ultimately result in mere window dressing unless due consideration is given to what studying foreign languages and literatures can contribute to the greater enterprise of truly “decolonizing” the curriculum and fostering inclusivity among the diverse student population.

From my own vantage point in German Studies at a South African university, in recent years most publishers of language courses have taken note of the changing demographics in the German speaking countries owing to the increasing influx of migrantsand thus produce teaching and learning materials reflecting a multicultural daily reality. South Africa is a multicultural society and thus, on the surface at least, as far as actually learninga foreign language with all the advantages of enhanced career prospects in the globalized economy of today seems to present few problems. However, if the foreign language departments that also teach literature are to contribute meaningfully to the project of transformation and decolonization of the curriculum, “Africanising” the prescribed reading list without due consideration of what the aim of such an action should be could come to represent a missed opportunity for an enhanced engagement with some important considerations presented by the unique position of being able to compare and highlight differences and similarities between a variety of cultures. Indeed, what seems to be at stake here is the embedding of the study of literary texts in a foreign language within a particular cultural context.In addition, given the current crisis in secondary education in South Africa, many underprepared students arrive at university and would benefit from an approach to literature that increases their ability to articulate their opinions, for example, while enhancing their general knowledge and simultaneously make use of their own cultural knowledge to access a wider understanding of different cultures. This would seem to indicate the desirability of embedding foreign language studies within a cultural studies programme which could fruitfully intersect with a wide variety of other areas of study such as diversity, gender and media studies to mention a few possibilities.

When considering where the emphasis in such a cultural studies could lie, then one concept from its name at least, would seem to provide an initial trajectory for underpinning the rationale for including literary texts in foreign language courses at university level viz. “cultural literacy”.The term“cultural literacy” gained much traction as a result of the publication of the best seller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Knowby E.D. Hirsch in 1987.Hirsch was concerned about the lack of cultural and historical content in the American school curriculum which increasingly devoted its efforts toward promoting formal reading skills using texts with a neutral content. What Hirsch intended was to foster the inculcation of knowledge about American culture which is based for the most part on a canon of western civilization with a bias toward an American national culture as the means to produce homogeneity in American society.In their critique of Hirsch’s hegemonic definition of cultural literacy Ernest R. House, Carol Emmer and Nancy Lawrence: “5. Cultural Literacy Reconsidered” in Literacy for a Diverse Society: Perspectives, Practices, and Policies. (Ed.) Elfriede H. Hiebert. 1991, have much to say concerning matters raised even today that are of relevance to the current discussion concerning the transformation of the curriculum atSouth African universities particularly with regard to foreign language and literature teaching within the wider framework of cultural studies.Of course, there are few societies that have not altered their demographics through immigration in recent years thus pointing to the need for a reflection on cultural diversity which will be addressed below. However, some of the deficits in Hirsch’s thinking as highlighted by House seem to play into some of the concerns still relevant in the current South African discussion regarding curriculum reform and the situation of underprepared students from deprived social backgrounds, for example. Contrary to Hirsch’s assertion that the individual student’s culture should be replaced by the notion of a national culture, House et al. correctly point to the anthropologically founded necessity of taking the student’s cultural background into consideration if effective learning is to take place:” […] anthropologists arrive at the conclusion that if a student’s own cultural background itself must be taken into account if the student is to learn” (House 1991:61), whereas “Hirsch draws the opposite conclusion, that students are culturally deficient and one must ignore their culture” (House et a. 1991:61.). Other concerns mentioned by House include the cultural bias of standardized testing (House et al. 1991:71) as well as Hirsch’s concept of cultural immutability (House et al. 1991:63), arriving at the conclusion:”The view of culture presented isone in which individuals passively receive culture rather than actively create it. No doubt onemust learn cultural content before one is able to create products that contribute to that culture (House et al.1991:71/72)”. Given the worrying number of students, mainly black, who either drop out of university or who fail to complete their degrees in the prescribed time, the question raised by House concerning the United States in the 1990s still have relevance for the situation faced by South African universities concerning the call for decolonization of the curriculum at present:

Why don’t some ethnic groups do better I society? Because they are culturally deficient in the knowledge they possess, according to Hirsch, and they will no longer be disadvantaged when they acquire that cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge alone allows one to succeed. This theme of cultural deprivation is repeated over and over in the United States in recent times and is a favorite of the neoconservatives in explaining why some ethnic groups succeed and some fail. (House et al.1991:72)

It would seem that the notion of “cultural literacy” is either discredited or not of much use in addressing the role of culture in the curriculum. While E.D. Hirsch’s understanding of the term is indeed problematic, the term, viewed from a more embracing starting point, is particularly useful in going some way to viewing the role of culture within a transnational context. Although the group “Cultural Literacy in Europe” is concerned with the European context, much of that to which they aspire could be adapted the (South) African context thus rehabilitating the notion of “cultural literacy” as stated in their website answer to the question as to what cultural literacy is:

Cultural literacy is an ability to view the social and cultural phenomena that shape our lives – bodies of knowledge, fields of social action, individuals or groups, and of course cultural artefacts – as being essentially readable(emphasis in original). Cultural literacy engages with interdisciplinarity, multilingualism and collaboration. It is a way of looking at social and cultural issues through the lens of literary thinking, employing communication, comparison and critique on a scale beyond that of one language or one nation-state, and avoiding abstraction. Furthermore, it is as much about innovation and creative practice – whether scholarly, artistic or social – as it is about analysis and it very often brings these two methods together (Cultural Literacy in Europe:Naomi Segal and LoredanaPolezzi).

To conclude these thoughts on cultural literacy, some points made by Lisa K. Taylor and Michael Hoechsmann within the context of multiculturalism in the Canadian school curriculum also have some relevance. As a result of the legacy of Apartheid era residential segregation, many South African students have not had much contact with other racial groups at school level which makes integration at university level essentially something new to them, thus bringing the need for “multicultural literacy” (Taylor and Hoechsmann 2011:241) to the fore. The title of Taylor and Hoechsmann’s article: ”Beyond Intellectual Insularity: Multicultural Literacy as a Measure of Respect” points to the contribution that in a South African context could be provided by the foreign languages and literatures in fostering the understanding and respect for other cultures in an increasingly globalized world. Multicultural curricula could better prepare South African students with the knowledge base, to borrow from Taylor and Hoechsmann’s findings concerning the Canadian school system and transpose them onto the current situation of South Africa’s underprepared undergraduates, and thus “[…]may begin to counter the Eurocentric hierarchical organization of knowledge that underpins complex systems of racism and Eurocentricism” (Taylor and Hoechsmann 2011:231). This would also help counter perhaps one-sided views propagated by the media thus making it more difficult for students to approach matters of diversity with an open mind, as

[…]media step in to inform or misinform youth with limited experience dealing with cultural difference or interactions with people of different ethnoracial and linguistic backgrounds than their own. Compared to schools, media appear to be a less consistent and even-handed source that tend to focus on particular ‘controversial’ topics and comparatively powerful racialized groups in ways that are often reductive, essentializing and culturalist (Taylor and Hoechsmann 2011:321/232).

In his article “What is an African curriculum?” Harry Garuba (African Studies, University of Cape Town) provides an historical background to the matter of curriculum reform on the African continent, particularly in Kenya in the 1960s, and elsewhere that may be useful to consider within the present context at South African universities, bearing in mind that “at basic level , a curriculum is simply a way of assigning value […]” (Garuba 2015) .In articulating some principles for curriculum reform, be they “content-driven additative” in approach or rethinking concepts used to frame them – “Because analytical tools and concepts may marginalize some students and privilege others”(Garuba 2015). Harry Garuba, borrowing from Edward Said, promotes the notion of contrapuntal analysis which he considers to be particularly useful for the following reasons: “Contrapuntal analysis takes into account the perspectives of both the colonized and the colonizer, their interwoven histories, their discursive entanglements – without necessarily harmonizing them or attending one while erasing the other”(Garuba 2015).

These remarks by Harry Garuba would seem to provide a good starting point for imagining a cultural studies programme in which the foreign languages and literature could blend both local and global interests. Here it is instructive, too to return to the original impetus for the development of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline in the first place. In South Africa, aspects of Cultural Studies have tended to be scattered among a variety of disciplines. In coming somewhat late to the game in developing Cultural Studies as an academic discipline in its own right and incorporating the foreign languages and literatures, South African universities would be in a position to select those aspects of cultural studies in other countries that speak to South African concerns within a global context as well as adding elements perhaps neglected by existing programmes in order to create uniquely South African programmes.

A glance at an overview such as the book Cultural Studies. EineEinführung. by Christina Lutter and Markus Reisenleitner (6th edition 2008) not only provides an interesting historical overview of the development of the discipline but also of the range of what could be included in a Cultural Studies programme. From the birth of the discipline in Great Britain in the 1960s, the expansion into the United States and the later establishment of the “Kulturwissenschaften in the German speaking countries. Each iteration has produced its own emphasis. What is, of course, of great interest within the South African context is the anti-hegemonic impetus of early British Cultural Studies, with Raymond Williams’ emphasis on culture not being just the expression of an elite culture but the embracing of a more diffuse concept of culture as a “whole way of life”, thus opening up space for diverse processes of differentiation and interaction of different cultural processes within specific economic, social and political contexts (Lutter and Reisenleitner 2008:14). Lutter and Reisenleitner have identified the common thread between the various manifestations of Cultural Studies as a political project with an intellectual practice, devoted to theory as both strategy and tool to produce knowledge beyond the academic context into concrete situatIons (Lutter and Reisenleitner 2008:14/15). Futhermore, with regard to the concern, for example, in their own Austrian context that Cultural Studies could be merely a fashionable import, which is also of relevance to the South African context, they cogently remark that Cultural Studies begin where there are needs and not merely fashions. The need for Cultural Studies in South Africa is acute.

South Africa is, as the most recent and ongoing student protests have highlighted, as already mentioned, a society with multiple educational problems to deal with and there could be much to be gained , as Harry Garuba indicated, by looking at some of the field already covered by others and adapt them to suit the local situation. Within the context of Cultural Studies specifically some of the following could be of relevance when choosing, for example, (not only) literary texts for study: popular culture and the mass media, identity and difference, gender and sexuality, knowledge and power, notions of ethnicity, race and the nation. The last mentioned rubric could be further broke down into questions such as community, i.e.: Who is one of us?, multiculturalism and anti-racism, fragmentation, hybridity and the diaspora. The advantage of the foreign languages and literatures being part of the project would be that it would allow for more wide-ranging and differentiated discussion of topics. Without the broader view, the danger of so-to-say stewing in one’s own juice could further entrench divisive “them and us” thinking. Instead of merely looking for differences one could, as Anil Bhatti has discussed in various publications, rather look for similarities between cultural groupings and manifestations not only in cultural products such as literature and film but in everyday life, too thus working against “othering” and alterityor even a violent homogenization of the “own” and the creations of a hegemonic obligatory identity (Bhatti et al. 2015: 247). South Africa is a multicultural and plurilingual society and perhaps paying more attention to Cultural Studies at an institutional level could go some way in creating a degree of ease in accepting that a common identity beyond the broadly South African could be difficult to achieve. Although much lip service has been paid to accepting difference, discrimination of various kinds and xenophobia have not yet disappeared from the scene. More knowledge would surely result in greater emphasis being placed on truly accepting difference as a resource and not a problem when dealing with one another as well as the rest of the world. Cultural literacy of the more embracing kind would then truly be a desirable outcome from engaging with Cultural Studies where the foreign languages and literatures could find a home.


Bhatti, A.; Kimmich,D; Koschorke, A.; Schlögl, R.; Wertheimer, J.: “Ähnlichkeit. EinkulturtheoretischesParadigma” in:Ähnlichkeit. EinkulturtheoretischesParadigma. Anil Bhatti, DorotheeKimmich (Eds.) Konstanz University Press. Perfect Paperback. 2015.

Garuba, Harry: “What is an African curriculum?” in Mail and Guardian.17.4.2015. [2016/08/22]

Hirsch, E.D.: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston, Houghton- Mifflin. 1987.

House, Ernest R.; Emmer,Carol; Lawrence, Nancy: “Cultural Literacy Reconsidered”. in:Literacy for a Diverse Society: Perspectives, Practices, and Policies. Ed. Elfrieda H. Hiebert.New York: Teachers College Press. 1991. pp.58-74.

Lutter, Christina; Reisenleitner, Markus: Cultural Studies. Eine Einführung.6. erweiterteAuflage. Cultural Studies Band 0. Löcker. Wien. 2008.

Taylor, Lisa K.; Hoechsmann, Michael: “Beyond Intellectual Insularity: Multicultural Literacy as a Measure of Respect”. in: Canadian Journal of Education.34,2. 2011. pp.219 – 238.

Segal, Naomi; Polezzi,Loredana: “Meeting the challenge of Cultural Literacy”. Cultural Literacy in Europe. [2016/08/16]