Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Cultural Literacy

One of my favorite paintings, Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, made an appearance on The Amazing Race last night. (My favorite part of the painting is the lower left-hand corner; if you look closely you can see that the prodigal son's sandal, in his rush to embrace his father, has come off his foot.)

I was a bit shocked, however, that some of the teams didn't know the story of the Prodigal Son. How does anyone go through life not knowing something about the parable of the Prodigal Son?

But, then, I'm always a little taken aback when people don't know things like this, e.g., when I have to explain the story of the Minotaur to my students so they'll catch the allusion I'm making when I use the phrase "Ariadne's thread." For that matter, I'm a little taken aback when I have to explain to them what a pons asinorum is. But not knowing the basic stories that ground Western civilization is rather worse. So I've begun to compile a list of Things You Should Know to Consider Yourself a Competent Member of Western Civilization. These are things that people should know at least well enough to catch obvious allusions to them in art, music, and literature.

The Bible: Old Testament: Creation, Fall, Flood, Tower of Babel, Call of Abram, Covenant with Abraham, Punishment of Sodom, Hagar in the Wilderness, Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob and the Birthright, Israel, Coat of Many Colors, Job, Moses and the Bullrushes, Burning Bush, Plagues of Egypt, Parting of the Sea, Mount Sinai, Fall of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, Ruth, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, David and Bathsheba, Psalm 23, Elijah and the Whirlwind, Ahab and Jezebel, Isaiah 53, Esther. I also should probably add the Dedication of the Temple, in 1 Maccabees.

The Bible: New Testament: John 1:1-14, Annunciation, Nativity, The Magi, Baptism, Wedding Feast at Cana, Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Good Samaritan, Parable of the Prodigal Son, Parable of the Ninety and Nine, Last Supper, Garden of Gethsemane, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Road to Emmaus and Ascension, Pentecost, Road to Damascus, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 11, Battle of Armageddon, New Jerusalem.

Classical: Oedipus, Minotaur, Achilles and Hector, Trojan Horse, Aeneas and Anchises, Isle of Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, Aeneas and Dido, Aeneas and the Sybil, Electra and Orestes.

Arthurian: Birth of Arthur, Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, Passing of Merlin, May-Day Massacre, Knight of the Cart, Finding of the Holy Grail, Passing of Arthur.

Shakespearean: Ghost of Hamlet's Father, Death of Hamlet, Death of Romeo and Juliet

Any suggestions to add to this? (Also, any suggestions for better links to some of these?)

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