A project of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch sparked a national debate with his book Cultural Literacy, claiming that there is a foundation of common knowledge every American should know — and codifying it in a list of 5,000 facts and cultural references. Hirsch’s list was attacked, celebrated, and much discussed. Today, amidst giant demographic and social shifts, the United States needs such common knowledge more than ever. But a 21st century sense of cultural literacy has to be radically more diverse and inclusive. And it needs to come not from one person but from all of us. So, we ask: What do you think Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate? Give us your top ten!


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1. Slavery
2. September 11th
3. Voting
4. Human rights
5. The Civil Rights Movement
6. Law
7. Declaration of Independence
8. Democracy
9. White privilege
10. US Civil War


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Colin Woodard
Award-Winning Author and Journalist
  • Story of Squanto
  • John Locke on the Poor
  • Whiskey Rebellion
  • Cherokee Nation-State
  • James Henry Hammond
  • Gilded Age Trusts
  • Social Darwinism
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Dwight Eisenhower Farewell Address
  • My Lai Massacre
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Anne-Marie Slaughter
President and CEO, New America Foundation
  • Jazz
  • Gilded Age
  • Trail of Tears
  • Sojourner Truth
  • The Dust Bowl
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Gettysburg Address
  • Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls
  • Korematsu dissent
  • I Have a Dream Speech
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David Henry Hwang
American playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and theater professor
  • The Blues
  • Japanese American Internment
  • The Six Nations
  • Forty acres and a mule
  • Stonewall Riots
  • Sally Hemings
  • Loving v. Virginia
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Know-Nothing Party
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act
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Maria Hinojosa
Award-Winning Journalist
  • History of Latinos in the US
  • Mexican map in the early 1800s
  • US Colonies
  • Chicano Movement
  • Young Lords
  • United Farm Workers
  • Japanese American Internment
  • Myth of objectivity
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Hope
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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
American Historian, Literary Critic, Filmmaker, and Public Intellectual
  • Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
  • Frederick Douglass July 4th Speech
  • Shine and the Titanic
  • The Signifying Monkey
  • The Spirituals
  • Precious Lord
  • The Souls of Black Folk
  • I’ve Been to the Mountain Top
  • The Rumble in the Jungle
  • Reconstruction Amendments
  • 19th Amendment
  • Stonewall


"What Every American Should Know” (WE-ASK) is a project of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program, and grew out of an essay by executive director Eric Liu. The Program was created in 2014 to explore how, in an age of increasing diversity and widening inequality, this country can cultivate a sense of shared destiny and common civic purpose. Learn more here.

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