Immediately after they wake up, a large percentage of people check their phones to see the latest notifications from their social media or to respond to the influx of emails they have received. Similarly, a large percentage of people stay up late doing the same thing, checking their feeds, scrolling, nothing in particular on their minds, nothing to look out for—just scrolling, as if something will magically appear. Everyday, millions of pairs of eyes flicker over their bright screens, either on Instagram, Snapchat, or iFunny looking at hundreds of memes, short, humorous images or clips shared from person to person, starting with just one viewer, then spreading exponentially, until, like the game of telephone, it evolves with every share, becoming something new, something different, yet derivative, building off of the original, but with a new touch of interpretation by whoever appropriates it. It can be said that memes are one the greatest things of 21st-century technology since they are able to be universally understood, shared, and laughed at. Language barriers are no more, so someone in the U.S. can share a meme with someone in China, and they will both get it. How cool is that—to be able to communicate cross-culturally and get a laugh out of it? Memes allow for a shared knowledge and entertainment for people of all ages and backgrounds, connecting them through a single medium. While I myself like a good meme, just as anyone else does, and while they can be hilarious, I think the popularity of memes today, despite its benefits, also brings with it deficits, problems that need, and should, be addressed. The spread of a “memetic literacy,” as I like to call it, has supplanted a much more fundamental, more necessary cultural literacy, and so will, I believe, impoverish both today’s and tomorrow’s youths.
When we think of literacy, we think of reading and writing. To be literate is to be able to read and write; to be illiterate, to be able to neither read nor write. Defined this way, our generation has the highest literacy ever, according to the graph to the left. Over time, as education has become open to more people, as education has been improved, literacy has gone up, and will continue to. We are living in an Enlightened age, the most Enlightened age, with information stored in computers and more brains than there have ever been. However, there is a difference between being able to read and write and being able to read and write well. E. D. Hirsch defines literacy as “the ability to communicate effectively with strangers.” What this means is that literacy is a common, shared knowledge. If I am literate, then I should be able to engage anyone on the street and be able to have an understanding conversation with them, one in which I am able to understand them, and them me. Despite our backgrounds, we are both able to know what we are each talking about; I and they are comprehended. During the 19th century when the world was industrializing, education was universalized. Schools were implemented worldwide to teach a shared culture. National languages were codified, instead of regional dialects so that people could understand one another, and thus, as in the Renaissance, reading was made available for everyone, not just the learned elite, who were usually religious members. Because language was made singular, common, the koine, the vulgar tongue, the common folk could on a mass level learn to read and write in school. Some argue that is a language and a culture that create a nation, for what is spoken and what is spoken about constitute a common people. There is a sort of egalitarian principle behind this, a principle of making everyone equal, of giving everyone, no matter their makeup, no matter their abilities, no matter their social position, the right to an education, the right to be a part of a culture. There are no distinctions between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the educated and the uneducated.
Hirsch relates how the literate usually like to keep the illiterate illiterate by not telling them how to be literate, withholding the specific requirements for becoming so. It is subtle: There is no single, agreed-upon list of things to know in order to be literate, for the selection is just so vast. The Western Canon, for example, is but a sampling of the world’s greatest literature. So while some may call you literate for having read the whole Canon, some may not consider that criteria enough. As such, to be truly literate, to be well read, is to be a part of the elite, as opposed to the merely literate, comprised of those who are educated enough to read and write. I like to think that I am pretty literate in memes, but this was disabused when I was hanging out with a friend one time, and every phrase I heard out of his mouth I could not relate to. I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of memes, yet here was my friend, who was clearly more literate in memes, referencing different jokes whereof I knew not. It was like he was having an inside joke with himself that I could not understand; I lacked the shared background knowledge as he, and he assumed I had it, when I did not. On YouTube, there are famous playlists 300-videos long, lasting for several hours, full of memes. If one can sit through all of them, then one, I guess, can be called “literate” in memes. However, he will still be lacking in other memes, meaning it is hard to specify what memes one should know if one is to be literate in them. In my case, how am I to know which memes are in vogue? Moving past this, the better one can read, the better one does in other subjects. From experience, I can attest to the fact that reading a variety of texts leads to a bigger vocabulary, and thence to a larger storage of knowledge and comprehension, resulting, ultimately, in easier learning through association. Such is the outline of literacy by Hirsch. Someone who is well-rounded in their reading, who reads not just fiction but non-fiction, who looks up words they do not know so they can improve, who not only specializes but generalizes their knowledge, who associates what they do not know with what they do know—they are literate, and they are successful in reading and writing.
E. D. Hirsch writes of a study he once conducted in Richmond, Virginia at a community college. There, he interviewed students and asked them to write responses to his prompts. Eventually, he asked them to write an essay in which they compare Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the latter of whom was himself a Virginian. Although they were in the capital of Virginia, what was once the capital of the South, the students were not able to write a response because they did not know who either of the two men was. Hirsch was flabbergasted, to say the least. The point he was trying to prove was this: Cultural literacy is integral to society. A universal background is always presupposed. We require tacit knowledge to understand things that are implicit, both in a text and in the world around. The culture is greater than the sum of its parts. Culture must be understood generally, in relation to all its parts, kind of like a Hermeneutic Circle, where the whole and its parts must be continually interpreted in light of each other. In this sense, cultural literacy comprises political, historical, social, literary, and scientific literacy, all in one, according to Hirsch. In other words, cultural literacy is the totality of all its subjects. One must be well-rounded and not too-specialized to be culturally literate, lest one neglect a subject over another. For instance, a writer writing a non-fiction book assumes his audience knows what he knows, or at least has some kind of background information coming into it; he least expects them to be coming in blindsided, without any preconceptions or context whatsoever. There should be an interplay between specialization and generalization, because, on the one hand, a reader should have a grasp of the subject overall, but also the details within it. Things that are assumed are connotations, norms, standards, and values, among other things—in short, shared knowledge. To have this shared knowledge, this basic understanding of one’s culture, such that one is able to engage with it, “to communicate effectively with strangers,” is to be culturally literate.
Durkheim spoke of a “collective consciousness,” a totality of implicit, pre-existent notions that exist within a society. Everyone in the given culture is under this collective consciousness, is part of it. It is collective because it is common to everyone; consciousness because everyone knows it, even without acknowledging it. Being an American, I have the idea of freedom as a part of my collective consciousness, just as over 300 million other people do. Were I to stop a stranger and ask them about freedom, I am sure they would have the same background knowledge as I, such as the 4th of July, which signifies independence for the U.S. This example illustrates an interaction in cultural literacy. Things are a part of our collective consciousnesses only because they are meaningful and valuable; if they are not, then they do not deserve to be presupposed by all. If it did not mean something, why should it survive in all of us? Hirsch writes, “[T]he lifespan of many things in our collective memory is very short. What seems monumental today often becomes trivial tomorrow.” It is hard to become a part of the collective memory. What makes good literature good is its longevity. Homer has long been considered one of the greatest ancient writers because he has remained read for millennia. Compare this to pop singers today, whose meteoric rises soon meet an impasse, only to decline, impermanent, impertinent. With memes, the same can be said. They all explode in popularity, only to reach their apex before either fading into obscurity or being replaced by another. A meme can be overhyped. It loses its importance, and although it seems “funny” or “important” one day, it may not the next. Memes are volatile things. On a whim, they come and go. Even though some have a longer life than others, they all eventually go. The classic Vine “9+10=21” was once extremely popular, and was quoted daily in school; now, it hardly exists in our collective memory; it is a ghost, a fragment from oblivion. Hirsch comments that about 80% of what is taught in the collective memory has already been taught for at least 100 years. The Western Canon, again, is a good example: Its core works have been fixed since antiquity, and as civilization progressed, more works were added to it to keep up, all the way to the 20th century. In 100 years, it is incredibly unlikely—albeit still possible—that we will remember, or at most care about, people chucking things while yelling, “YEET!” Memes, while communicating entertainment, do not express values. Therefore, the Western Canon as such is as it is because it has been formative in our world; they have been studied so long and by so many people, that it has left an indelible influence, an influence that persists today.
Given all this, I can now address the main problem of this essay, namely the conflict between cultural literacy and “memetic literacy.” I have not spoken a lot about memes yet save in small bits, but I shall discuss them presently. For now, I wish to direct your attention to the issue at hand: The decline of cultural literacy. A teacher created a quiz full of famous, influential persons and gave it to his class to gauge their familiarity with historical, artistic, literary, and philosophical literacy. He was disappointed when one of his students compared the test to a game of Trivial Pursuit, because it prompted the question, What counts as important or trivial today? This is a vital question that everyone needs to ask themselves. Are famous leaders like Napoleon now trivial today, compared to the importance of Viners and YouTubers like Logan Paul? If both names were to be put on a test, would students cry, “Why do we have to know this Napoleon guy? Logan Paul obviously has a bigger influence today”? Is knowing who Napoleon is just trivia? Furthermore, the teacher found that his students had no knowledge of current events, specifically of their own country and its involvement in foreign affairs. Jaime M. O’Neill, the teacher, states, “Communication depends, to an extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage.” Allusions are thought by many to be pretentious. Those who make allusions are called name-droppers, and are disparaged. Many and I would argue on the contrary, saying that it connects to Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy. Allusions are an example of shared knowledge. To be well-read, and therefore to know of many ideas and people, is to be involved in your culture. If I were to call something Kafkaesque, then I would be engaging with my culture, as I am expressing a background in literature, whereof the situation calls. Conclusively, we are losing the ability to make references to the collective consciousness, the ability to commune with strangers on the same basis. There is a paucity of literacy in literature and history. All teenagers know these days is what they need to know. No one goes out of their way to study history or literature; they are content and complacent with what they know. O’Neill records, plaintively, that some of his students thought Pablo Picasso was a 12th-century painter, and William Faulkner was an English scientist during the Scientific Revolution.
Throughout my day, I hear my friends and classmates complaining about impractical, specialized knowledge on their tests, knowledge they have to memorize. Although I can sympathize with them, and although I agree often that these tests are absurd, I also think they are in the wrong to say these things. Jeff Jacoby, a journalist for the Boston Globe, has written about the same subject. He talks about how it is actually easier to memorize what is on standardized tests than it is our peers’ standards. Put another way, we memorize so much useless information and trivia on a daily basis about sports, music, and TV in order to keep up with our peers, that it is easier to memorize facts that are on a test. Unlike peer culture, whose facts are prone to change and in constant flux, tests’ facts are fixed and unchanging. Whereas 1789 is always the date of the start of the French Revolution, knowing Steph Curry is the point guard for the Golden State Warriors is bound to change in years to come. Memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem is applicable, as opposed to memorizing all the names of the band members of One Direction, which is impressive, but not applicable. The biggest complaints I hear, and which Jacoby also cites, are “I could spend my time more meaningfully” and “Why should we have to memorize facts?” Both points have merit, I concede, especially the latter. Please do not interpret me as supporting the school and not the students; I have many a problem with education today, of which one is standardized testing, because the memorization of lifeless facts is indeed a problem. My point is: We youths memorize countless dumb, trivial facts about pop culture and regurgitate them just as much as we do scientific facts, like mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell. I am forced to ask, If you claim you could be spending your time better, what, then, would that look like? Simply put, teenagers, myself included, are false and hypocritical; and while I am not saying we should not complain at all, I think we should complain less, unless we truly have grounds for doing so.
Kids set truly high performance learning standards for each other…. If students don’t know the details of the latest clothing fashions or the hot computer games or the to-die-for movie stars, they’re liable to be mocked, shunned, and generally ‘flunked’ by others their age. That’s why so many spend hours each day absorbing the facts and names of popular culture.
This is a particularly interesting insight. Writing for the Concord Review, Will Fitzhugh observes that teens memorize popular culture information to fit in with their peers, to pass their “informal tests” that they create for each other, to be cool. Just as school is standardized, so peer performance has standards, which, if not met, result in getting “flunked.” Students complain about testing in schools when life is a big test itself! One must struggle to stay afloat in the advancing rapids of entertainment that speed by. One must be “cool,” lest they be ostracized for not being a part of the peer culture. One should be studying hard for a test they have later that week, yet there they are, up late at night, stressing over whether they are literate enough in pop culture, cramming in short seven-second videos to fit in, obsessive, anxious. Memetic literacy is slowly overtaking cultural literacy. Jacoby concludes, “The question on the table is whether the subjects to be memorized will include English, math, science, and history—or whether the only mandatory subjects will be music, television, movies, and fashion.”
So what actually is a meme? The following excerpt comes from the originator of the term, the scientist Richard Dawkins:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…. [M]emes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
A meme is a certain kind of gene, a strand of code that is inherited. But unlike biological genes, memes are what Dawkins calls “cultural genes” in that they do not pass from person to person, but culture to culture. It is a gene on a mass level. Think viral. A “viral video” is so called because, like a virus, it spreads exponentially in its hosts, not just through the air, but digitally. The video goes “viral” as it is passed from person to person, computer to computer. He says a meme is a form of “imitation,” by which he means that the meme is copied and then replicated. It has copies made of it, either new ones or mutations. They are reproducible and copyable—in fact, there is a meta-meme, a meme about a meme, about stealing memes: Creators will take an already existing meme and put their own twist on it, then put their name on it to claim it, ad infinitum. A meme is a favorable way of cultural transmission, as Dawkins puts it, because they are easily reproducible. The basic meme consists of a picture background with an above and below text that makes some kind of predictable joke along a patterned outline. The picture stays the same, but the text can be changed to allow for different jokes among people. They are simple and easy to understand. Punchlines are short and witty, and they are so widely recognized, anyone, regardless of ethnicity or language, will be able to get a laugh at its comedy. Unlike cultural literacy, which differs transculturally, memes are universal. Any high schooler, I can guarantee, will know a meme from across the world if presented one. Memes have become the source of new allusions. This means, after all, that memes are a part of the collective consciousness briefly. Seen by millions daily, memes are a worldwide shared knowledge. But of course, memes, for how good they are, come with problems, too. What is most important in the definition of a meme, I feel, is the word “idea.” Idea can be many things—a song, a joke, a theory, an emotion, a fashion, a show, a video, and a dozen others. This said, memes have great potential because they are good for spreading ideas that matter. The problem is: Memes spread ideas that do not matter. Viral videos are for entertainment, and nothing else. One laughs at a sneezing panda for enjoyment, not education, nor enlightenment. Memes are usually. trivial, frivolous, meaningless, and humorous. Not all are, but most are. Despite their potential, memes are actually vapid and disruptive. I get a good laugh out of memes, and sometimes they can even be intellectual in their content, like historical memes. But for the majority of them, they are useless, fatuous entertainment. We need, in this age of ours, to find a balance between being literate in memes, and being literate in our world.
To summarize, the problem at hand is that we are seeing a decline in cultural literacy, the ability to communicate with strangers with a shared, underlying knowledge, and a rise in memetic literacy, the ability to make allusions to videos, celebrities, sports, fashion, and other popular culture. This is not to say that memes should not be used at all, no; after all, Nietzsche said, “Without music life would be a mistake.” A musician like Michael Jackson, being a part of popular culture, ought to be discussed just as much as Louis XVI because he is a part of our collective memory. Popular culture is, of course, a subdivision of cultural literacy, because without it, we would have little shared knowledge! I fear the day we no longer know of classical literacy, when we can quote Lil Pump’s “Esketit” but not Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be.” We should be able to discuss music and fashion and sports, but it should not be the priority; they are entertainment. Memes do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of harm. They spread universal joy. They can get an idea to be seen by millions. What we need to do is ask ourselves questions. We need to consider what is trivial and important today. We need to decide what is worth studying, what ideas are worth spreading. Entertainment is essential, but spreading ideas, good ideas, is more important. We are undergoing a fundamental change in our world, and we need to be present to address it. This is a proposal to look inward instead of outward, to examine our values, to find out what we care about.
 Hirsch, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, p. xv
 Id., p. x
 O’Neill, “No Allusions in the Classroom” (1985), in Writing Arguments by John D. Ramage, pp. 400-1
 Will Fitzhugh, qtd. in Jacoby, “The MCAs Teens Give Each Other” (2000), in Elements of Argument by Annette T. Rottenberg, p. 99
 Id., p. 100
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192
 Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, §33, p. 5
For further reading:
Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader 7th ed. by Annette T. Rottenberg (2003)
Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings by John D. Ramage (1989)
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch (1988)
Challenges to the Humanities by Chester E. Finn (1985)
An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones (2006)