In protection of absolute literacy
from Terry Heik
Broadly speaking, literacy is the ability to read and write.
These two skills imply the ability to think critically. Otherwise, reading and writing are just skills—processes of moving words, and anyone who’s ever read and written well knows that’s not true.
Absolute literacy, however, is that idea of reading, writing, and thinking, but with the added burden of understanding what’s worth reading, writing, and thinking about — an idea that’s in vogue in an era of social media where a 15th -second video can be received, becomes more relevant two hundred million views and some of the most important ideas in recorded human history (which are not only “important” but can also help them to think and live better for themselves) solve in students a “LOL” reaction off.
The following is an excerpt from an essay by Wendell Berry on literacy, primarily from a cultural and human perspective. In it, he questions the increasing preoccupation with “professional maturity” and our willingness to forego precise communication in everyday life and in selected forms of entertainment.
Of course, Berry never calls this kind of literacy “absolute,” but if we take the need to read and write and follow that need as an arc to the meaningful application of that reading and writing, the whole context is comprehensive. Understanding what’s worth reading—and what you might do with those ideas—is just as important as reading it. The same goes for writing—both powerful strategies to etch out our own humanity.
In defense of literacy
from Wendell Berry
In a country where everyone goes to school it may seem absurd to defend literacy, and yet I believe such a defense is in order and that the absurdity lies not in the defense but in the need for it. The published illiterates of the certified educated increase. And universities seem anxious to confirm this state of affairs by declaring that their graduates have adequate, i.e. mediocre, writing skills as acceptable.
So the schools follow the general submission to the “practical” as that term has been defined for us according to the utility of the corporations. By “practicality” most users of the term now understand what is most predictable and quickest to yield a profit. English and literature teachers, along with teachers of the more “practical” disciplines, have either submitted to, or are expected to submit to, the doctrine that the purpose of education is the mass production of producers and consumers.
This has put our profession in a predicament that we must finally acknowledge as a perversion. Daunted by the rise of the “practical” in our society, many of us secretly fear, and some of us seem willing to say, that a student who does not become a teacher of his language has no need to master it. In other words, to keep up with specialization – and the dignity accorded to specialization – in other disciplines, we have begun to treat and teach our language and literature as specialties. But while specialization is inherent in the applied sciences, it is a perversion of the linguistic and literary disciplines.
If we understand and teach these as specialties, we submit willy-nilly to the assumption of the “practitioners” of economics, and apparently also of education, that literacy is just a trinket: if you go to an efficient integer of economics, then it is permissible, even desirable to be able to talk about the latest novels. For the disciples of “practicality” might one day find themselves conversing with an English teacher.
I may have oversimplified this way of thinking, but not much. There are two flaws in it. One is that among the self-proclaimed “practical men,” the practical equates to the immediate. The long-term effects of their values and their actions are beyond the bounds of their interests. For such people, an open pit mine ceases to exist once the coal is mined. Short-term practicality is long-term idiocy.
The other flaw is that language and literature are always about something different and we have no way of predicting or controlling what they are about. They are about the world. We will only understand the world, and keep ourselves and our values within it, if we have a language that is alert, receptive, and careful with it….
The ignorance of books and the lack of a critical awareness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared public speech, illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger.
Think how constantly intentional language surrounds “the average American” in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on television and radio. He is constantly urged to buy or believe someone else’s line of goods. The assortment of goods is also sold by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe in it, whether he needs it or understands it or knows or wants its value.
This kind of selling is a profession of honor for us.
Parents who are hysterical at the thought that their son might not get his hair cut are glad he’s being taught and later hired to lie about the quality of a car or the skills of a contestant. What is our defense against this kind of language – this language as a weapon? There is only one. We must speak a better language.
We must speak a language, and teach our children to speak a language that is precise, articulate, and vivid enough to speak the truth about the world as we know it. And for that we need to know something about the roots and resources of our language; we must know his literature.
The only defense against the worst is knowing the best. Through their ignorance, people disenfranchise their exploiters. But to fully appreciate the need for the best kind of literacy, we must consider not only the environment of the prepared language in which most of us now spend most of our lives, but also the utter transience of most of that language, the is meant to be looked at or heard only once or read once and thrown away.
Such language is by definition and often computationally unmemorable; it is a language to be replaced by what immediately follows, like the superficial conversation between strangers. It cannot be thought about or effectively criticized. For these reasons, an unmixed diet destroys the informed, resilient, critical intelligence that the best of our traditions have sought to create and maintain—an intelligence that Jefferson saw as essential to the health and longevity of liberty.
Such intelligence does not grow by inflating oneself with the fleeting information and misinformation of the public media. It grows by returning to the milestones of its cultural birthright, to be dedicated to the works that have proven worthy.
Excerpt from the essay by Wendell Berry in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural. A harvest book. Harcourt Brace & Company. San Diego, New York, London.; The Big Picture of Reading: In Defense of Absolute Literacy
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