Advancing Cultural Literacy in the
By Camilla Gant, associate professor of mass
communications, University of West Georgia
As the cultural tapestry of America becomes more variegated
and the digital communication revolution narrows global
divides, scholarship concerned with cultural pluralism
is gaining prominence in the general education curricula
of American colleges and universities. Some educators
embrace this trend as a critical curricular shift. They
argue that engaging students in scholarship, critical
discourse, and experiential learning concerned with
cultural diversity prepares them to manage the complexities
of living in and contributing to a pluralistic society
and workplace. But educators from another camp are less
enthusiastic. They worry that an increased emphasis
on cultural literacy can lead to segregated learning
environments. Moreover, some are concerned that cultural
literacy may perpetuate zero-sum perceptions, the concept
that students may view sensitivity toward select groups
and issues as devaluing and denigrating others (Ross
and Patton 2000).
The reality of cultural pluralism is not debatable.
Diverse cultures coexist in our modern world, and members
of different cultures grapple daily to maintain their
uniqueness while respecting others’ differences.
At the core of vigorous debate, however, is the question
of how, not whether, to address cultural
pluralism in the general education curriculum.
Researching the State of Cultural Literacy
|TABLE 1: Departmental share of contribution to cultural literacy in core curriculum*
|Gender and Women's Studies
* Based on a cohort of ten
system institutions within the thirty-five-school
University System of Georgia.
Six Key Questions about Cultural Literacy
1. Does the institution place explicit value
on cultural literacy through its general education
2. Does the mission statement outline expected
cultural literacy outcomes, and does it specify
the courses that will fulfill these expectations?
3. Does the institution offer a range of courses
in cultural diversity that supports the principles
of the mission statement?
4. Do courses that address cultural literacy
focus on “macroscopic” issues (such
as equity and discrimination) or “microscopic”
issues (such as relations between particular groups
of people in specific situations)?
5. Does the institution, through its mission
statement and course offerings, offer a balanced
(in terms of focus) and sustained (over many years)
cultural literacy curriculum?
6. Do cultural literacy courses compete with
other course requirements, allowing students to
circumvent the cultural literacy curriculum?
As chair of the Curriculum Advisory Committee of Minority
Affairs at the University of West Georgia, I attempted
to approach this question by researching current treatments
of cultural literacy in the general education curricula
of a cohort of peer institutions. My research, which
involved ten comprehensive system institutions in Georgia,
focused on two particular items: institutional mission
and the coursework used to implement that mission. I’m
convinced that there is no one-size-fits-all approach
to curricular reform. Nevertheless, my analysis suggests
that critical benchmark discussions are necessary to
position cultural literacy in the general education
GENERAL EDUCATION MISSION STATEMENT: General education
mission statements drive decisions about where to position
courses that attend to cultural diversity. If an institution
(or a system of institutions) values cultural literacy,
its general education mission statement should reflect
this. The general education mission statement should
stipulate an integration of appropriate courses and
define clear learning outcomes for each component of
the core. In doing so, the statement may reveal the
best curricular approaches to cultural literacy. In some
cases, however, institutions may discover that their
mission statements do not explicitly value cultural
literacy. These institutions must reconsider their mission
statements and place greater emphasis on cultural literacy.
COURSE AUDIT: A course audit is essential for an institution
trying to evaluate its commitment to cultural literacy.
An audit gauges the number and nature of courses that
treat cultural diversity in significant depth, and offers
a sense of how frequently such courses are scheduled.
A successful course audit requires meticulous attention
to current and past course catalogs and bulletins. My
experience suggests that the audit should comprise at
least four years of data to capture a representative
sample of the curriculum.
Embedded within the audit task is the presumption that
the institution has an operational definition of cultural
diversity, as described by its general education mission
statement or institutional values. Comparing this working
definition with the actual range of courses offered
is a substantial part of the task at hand.
For some institutions, the course audit may reveal
a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary commitment
to examining macroscopic issues: equity, discrimination,
prejudice, oppression, and privilege. For other institutions,
the audit may reveal a more microscopic focus on the
economic, social, and political relationships between
societies and particular populaces: white women, women
and men of color, or people with disabilities. Whatever
the audit reveals, it prepares an institution to move
forward by allowing it to understand its current curricular
The Big Picture
I recently conducted a Web site analysis of the general
education curricula for the cohort of Georgia institutions
under study to explore options for my institution. My
research revealed unexpected results. The ten institutions
offered a total of ninety-six courses as required or
elective cultural literacy options. An overwhelming
share of these courses—80.2 percent—centered
on global literacy, compared to 10.4 percent that focused
on multicultural literacy within the U.S.
In addition to suggesting an imbalance in focus between
American and global pluralism, my research indicated
an imbalance of disciplines that contribute to cultural
literacy in the core curriculum. Twenty programs offered
at least one course that centered on cultural diversity
within the U.S. or abroad. Yet only five disciplines
provided 65.6 percent of the cultural diversity courses
(see table 1). My analysis also indicated that in most
cases, students could circumvent cultural literacy courses,
choosing instead to fulfill core requirements with other
courses within the institutional options, humanities/
fine arts, and social sciences areas.
These findings suggest an important lesson—consider
the big picture. An institution’s mission statement
will be an important factor in the way it implements
cultural literacy. Yet institutions must also take care
to implement their mission statements in a balanced
way throughout the general education curriculum. Cultural
literacy should be a true multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary
experience. Otherwise, its pedagogical benefits are
minimized. Beyond considering their pedagogical approach,
institutions must consider how graduates will interact
in society. They must balance course offerings to equip
their graduates with the requisite knowledge and skill
sets to manage the complexity of cultural differences
that they will encounter in their future communities
Ross, F., and J. Patton. 2000. The nature of journalism
courses devoted to diversity. Journalism and Mass
Communication Educator 55 (1): 24–39.