Is pop culture too big a part of literacy?

In looking at some of the texts for English Literature with my students (you know, the ones from over a hundred years ago that they struggle to relate to) I’ve noticed that pop culture references play a huge part in the understanding of the text. 

This is difficult enough when a text is modern, when the references to pop culture are cemented in T.V programmes made famous throughout the 80s and 90s. Pre-twentieth century cultural references – the traditions of Christmas or the understanding of workhouses and debtor prison essential to understanding A Christmas Carol, for example – are almost inaccessible for some students.

Which isn’t to say that learning about these things isn’t a valuable and educational experience in and of itself. Learning the history of our culture can bring sense to many things students have seen and heard for years without understanding. But does it need to be an essential part of reading, something so intrinsic to a text that not knowing it hinders reading comprehension?

I think particularly of some of my students when I say this. Students whose parents emigrated to the UK in the sixties and later who, whilst classing English as their first language, sometimes lack the breadth of pop culture that might be shared by someone who has parents and grandparents who threw out and then explained vague pop culture references throughout their childhood.

Pop culture is meant to be something that unites us, but in the context many young people experience it, it is something that further isolates them from the text. After all, each generation has its own pop culture references, its own set of essential experiences that bind it. But these often fail to make it to set texts in English until many years later, meaning that young people have to interact with and try to understand a culture that does not include them. For example, Monty Python references probably do not hold much humour for someone who has never seen or appreciated them for the contribution they made within the pop culture of the time.

Pop culture and literacy are both important facets of education, but I will always argue that literacy is the most essential for success in general. So maybe it’s time that essential texts didn’t focus quite so heavily on a culture that is, in a lot of cases, no longer relevant.

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