09/15/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Insomnia, Hemingway's Mouth, and the Cultural Referent

As a college instructor of first- and second-year college students, one would think I would better occupy my time in the wee hours when I can't sleep no matter what. I should catch up reading some Proust or Noam Chomsky. But, lacking self-respect, I channel-surf and alight on the Cartoon Network, which during night time hours runs something called "Adult Swim." This programming consists of "adult-themed" animated shows, most of which are raunchy, a few humorous and marginally clever.

One Sunday at the ungodly hour of one a.m. a show came on called "Rick and Morty," which seemed to be about a crazed scientist, Rick, with a superiority complex who moves in with his son's family and has all these misadventures with his grandson, Morty. In one episode, Morty's parents, probably because of something Rick did to the space/time continuum, are battling weird mutant creatures. The father has a sword and the mother, a shotgun, with which she is efficiently dispatching the mutants. The father turns and says, "I wish that shotgun was my penis." The mother replies, "If it were, you could call me Ernest Hemingway."

Now, I'm not easily shocked, but in a stupor of half-sleep, I perked up. Huh? What was that? Wow, that's pretty offensive, I thought as I chuckled. But then I wondered, considering the target demographic (college age, 20s), how many might get the joke. I suppose the writer(s) thought, hey this is funny, however, for those unfamiliar with Hemingway, blank stares?

All this leads me to consider something I encounter when I try to engage my college students: I call it the problem of the cultural referent. We describe many things by making comparisons. Considering the behavior of Shakespeare's Macbeth (oh, that Macbeth), I could allude to Freud's theory of the subconscious. Huh? I have a cousin who teaches political science who says to his first-year students, "Once upon a time there was a man named Richard Nixon." This is anecdotal, but I heard of a graduate in English from a major university who didn't know who the Bard was--or maybe what it was.

Is it important that people know how Hemingway died? Not particularly, but it's something in the general canon of our cultural literacy. Another part of this is understanding something in its historical context.

When introducing students to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I can't or won't say, "Once upon a time an escaped slave and a boy took a raft trip down a big river." Although, it wouldn't surprise me, if it's been done in someone's classroom.

In his book, Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch points out that this type of literacy requires, beyond basic reading and writing skills, the common body of information that is possessed by the general society. Hirsch provides an alphabetical list at the end of his book. These range from basic to obscure. Some brief examples:
 AC/DC (not the band).
 Achilles (Brad Pitt?).
 Achilles Heel (ah, one needs to dig a little deeper; the origin of Achilles' vulnerability and how it came to be the myth).
 Africa. I'm sure Sarah Palin isn't the only one among us who called it a country.

So, the outcomes can be predictable. Part of this results from a culture where reading for one thing is unpopular, where we even look upon "readers" with suspicion. We hear of a handful of adults who brag about never having read a book in their lives, as if it's a badge of accomplishment. When this bottoms out maybe this can be corrected, although probably not anytime soon. After all, the Dark Ages lasted more than a thousand years.