What Americans Want to Know

by Guest Blogger
December 21st, 2015

Sometimes, dreams really do come true. In June, I called for knowledge equality through a new, crowd-sourced effort to specify what all of our children should have the opportunity to learn. Now, a similar project is underway. Eric Liu, of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program and Citizen University, is calling on all of us to determine what every American ought to know. Inspired by E. D. Hirsch, Liu is cultivating a shared body of knowledge that honors our diversity while forming a common bond. As Liu wrote:

It is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols….

Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change…. As Hirsch put it: “to be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987….

It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated….

The [cultural literacy] list for our times can’t be the work of one person or even one small team. It has to be everyone’s work. It has to be an online, crowd-sourced, organic document that never stops changing, whose entries are added or pruned, elevated or demoted, according to the wisdom of the network….

And indeed, on the website whateveryamericanshouldknow.org, we are starting just such an experiment with an online survey.


Defining America, one contributor at a time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

As I write, the top twenty items are focused on history and civics, with just a few hinting at science, engineering, mathematics, and economics—and nothing on the arts. I hope this is just a temporary byproduct of the effort being announced in Democracy, not a true indicator of what Americans think we ought to know. Responsible citizenship certainly requires knowledge of history and a strong moral compass for improving the human condition—but it also requires deep knowledge of our natural world and a desire to make ourselves better stewards.

The beauty of this endeavor is that it prompts each of us to consider what we need and ought to know, giving each an equal voice. The more of us who participate, the more valuable this project becomes. So, over the next few weeks, I hope you will contribute your top ten, and ask your family and friends to contribute as well.


  1. This actually looks like a list of what very liberal Americans think Americans should know. Seriously, the Trail of Tears is more important than the Constitution? Edward Snowden is more important than the Declaration of Independence? I have no beef with Snowden, and the Trail of Tears was unarguably a disaster, but how about the big picture, folks? When I see lists full of “what’s wrong with America” as what Americans need to know, I have to wonder. No doubt a nation and a people must be as aware of faults and errors as individuals should be, but certainly something good must be worth of inclusion on some of these lists.

    Comment by Broeck Oder — December 21, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

  2. Thinking along the path of a CC, is this what people need to know to be functional on their job? … to be an informed voter? … to be able to help their children with school work? … to discuss problems with their friends and neighbors?
    I agree with the previous comment that this is mostly a cheat sheet for liberal talking points. Saying, “necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours,” doesn’t sound much like a way “to be conservative in the means of communication”.
    Would have liked to see some explanation of what give a topic a spot on the pull-down list.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 21, 2015 @ 4:21 pm

  3. I know when I entered my list, I thought about things that might not be included already. I don’t think it is possible to say “these are the most important things to learn” but it is possible to say “here are 10 important things that I think are overlooked/don’t receive enough emphasis”.

    Comment by Mia Munn — December 22, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

  4. great article.. I really find this very interesting. great work. keep posting.

    Comment by Ravi — December 29, 2015 @ 6:34 am

  5. Establishing what every American ought to know is essential to learning and preparing students not only for work in the classroom but for real life. However, we must establish diversity into the program to ensure that based on diversity each group is addressed and the way in which they learn and what they need to learn is also included. Each student learns in his or her own individual manner. What students ought to know must be established along with providing resources to help students learn within their own learning styles. Then and only then will our students succeed under this new reform.

    Comment by Dana — January 21, 2016 @ 2:34 am

  6. Robert Pondiscio’s take on Ten things every American should know

    Comment by Mia Munn — January 21, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

  7. That’s a great list, Mia, and a great organizational strategy by our old friend, Robert. There is a redundancy, however, that if compiled would create room for one prominent omission. As points three and nine both reference the immigrant experience, they could be combined and leave open a slot for the Native American experience headlined by this excerpt from the speeches of Tecumseh: “Where today are the Pequot, the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanoket, and the many other once powerful tribes of our people?” This would be placed most aptly in slot number nine, following “American Exceptionalism.” All American students, at some point, ought to read eye-witness accounts of the exceptionally complete genocide inflicted upon the Pequot by Governor Winthrop’s citizen’s-upon-the-hill just seven years after he penned that famous sermon, perhaps followed by the same dreary testimony of what his immediate heirs did in a copy-cat slaughter of the Narragansett thirty nine years later. Such “evidence from the text” tends to mute the strains of John Phillip Sousa that are the usual accompaniment of the Exceptionalism “debate” today.

    Comment by william j. eccleston — January 30, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

  8. I agree we need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated….

    Comment by yvonne Wolfe — July 17, 2016 @ 9:56 pm

  9. Building off of post number 5 by Dana:

    Determining what America ought to know is a hard idea to process for me. There are so many things that our students should know; however, how does one prioritize those things? I back Dana’s notion that diversity should be heavily considered when teaching. We should be striving to understand our diverse learners, their learning needs, how they learn best, etc. What our students ought to know should be addressed through equitable means with a broad base of common knowledge.

    Comment by ANDREA HART — September 14, 2016 @ 8:22 pm

  10. Wow way to get at the heart of an issue. Though I agree with the article, it seemed to make assumption that all are in agreement with the way it chose to address the primary issue. I gaining as much knowledge as possible is great in theory, yet for practical purpose we all only have so much time. So how do we choose what makes the cut or not?

    Comment by tony spencer — September 18, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

  11. To live peacefully with our fellow ‘man’ in the world we need to get a few basics right. To understand others. To understand others we need to know ourselves. The best way to do that is to read the best sources of self knowledge. Try Shakespeare, if he’s too difficult, try Orwell! Then we need a sense of place. Geography is a must. History is the story of ‘our’ past, where we can mull over the deeds of those who have gone before us and know something of the wise and not so wise decisions these people have made. Another must. History will only add to that self knowledge so fundamental to getting along with others and learning from their mistakes. Skin colour and cultures are accidental if they add tremendously to the richness of life. Get the fundamentals right and we’ll be much less conflicted. Regarding ability, Hirsch said that you can teach anything to any child, it depends on how you do it. My own experience concurs with this belief. Forget about differentiation and consider instead the myriad ways one can impart knowledge. Michael Oakeshott believed education was about learning to become a human being (Looking at oneself in the mirror of ones/others inheritance, by which he meant the histories and literatures), nothing at all to do with amassing points, competing with others or climbing the ladder. Oakeshott preferred the ‘conversational’ approach to learning. He thought it tallied well with what we are porporting to do. Good luck!

    Comment by Agnes McEvilly — February 2, 2017 @ 10:48 am

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