I've been thinking about cultural literacy because I just discovered, via J.E. Skeets's twitter feed, something called Greg Rutter's Definitive List of The 99 Things You Should Have Already Experienced On The Internet Unless You're a Loser or Old or Something. I don't know if it's smart to watch or read or peruse all of these things in one sitting--these are things you should have already experience, not a playlist for a Saturday night when the subway is running local or whatever. But the collection is cool because it is one guy's take on what internet literacy is for non-loser young people.
This list reminded me of an article written by Jim Emerson, on Roger Ebert's blog, about movie literacy:
On the "Brokeback Mountain" panel, I talked mainly about the film as a work in the tradition of the classical American Western, exemplified by John Ford ("Stagecoach," "The Searchers") and Howard Hawks ("Red River," "El Dorado"), and the Hollywood love story, as exemplified by Douglas Sirk ("All That Heaven Allows") and many others. You can't fully understand a contemporary work of art or pop culture unless you know at least something about its heritage -- just as Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (which Roger Ebert dissected shot by shot with an audience during the conference) would be meaningless without the classic private eye movies and films noir it invokes and subverts, especially "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon." "Brokeback Mountain" is not an "anti-Western," but (in the parlance of 1973), you could definitely say that "The Long Goodbye" is an anti-noir. It's like jazz: You have to know the notes Altman isn't playing to understand how he's riffing on and around the familiar melody of the generic private detective movie.
He then provides a helpful list of the 102 "movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat 'movie-literate.' I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share."