In Defense Of Absolute Literacy

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reading-childThe Big Picture Of Reading: In Defense Of Absolute Literacy

by Terry Heick

Literacy, roughly put, is the ability to read and write. Implied in those two skills is the ability to think critically. Otherwise, reading and writing are simply skills–processes to move words around, and anyone that’s ever read and written well knows that’s not true.

Absolute Literacy, though, 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 increasingly relevant in an era of social media where a 15-second video can receive two hundred million views, and some of the most important ideas in recorded human history elicit an “LOL” reaction from students.

The following is an excerpt of an essay by Wendell Berry on literacy, primarily through a cultural and human lens. In it, he questions educations increasing preoccupation with “career readiness,” and our willingness to dispense with precise communication in our day to day life and chosen entertainment forms.

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 full context is comprehensive. It is as important to understand what’s worth reading–and what one might do with those ideas–as it is to read. Same with writing–both powerful strategies to etch out our own humanity.

In Defense Of Literacy

by Wendell Berry

In a country in which everybody goes to school, it may seem absurd to offer a defense of literacy, and yet I believe that such a defense is in order, and that the absurdity lies not in the defense, but in the necessity for it. The published illiteracies of the certified educated are on the increase. And the universities seem bent upon ratifying this state of things by declaring the acceptability, in their graduates, of adequate – that is to say, of mediocre writing skills.

The schools, then, are following the general subservience to the “practical,” as that term has been defined for us according to the benefit of corporations. By “practicality” most users of the term now mean whatever will most predictably and most quickly make a profit. Teachers of English and literature have either submitted, or are expected to submit, along with teachers of the more “practical” disciplines, to the doctrine that the purpose of education is the mass production of producers and consumers.

This has forced our profession into a predicament that we will finally have to recognize as a perversion. As if awed by the ascendency of the “practical” in our society, many of us secretly fear, and some of us are apparently ready to say, that if a student is not going to become a teacher of his language, he has no need to master it. In other words, to keep pace with the specialization–and the dignity accorded to specialization–in other disciplines, we have begun to look upon and to teach our language and literature as specialties. But whereas specialization is of the nature of the applied sciences, it is a perversion of the disciplines of language and literature.

When we understand and teach these as specialties, we submit willy-nilly to the assumption of the “practical men” of business, and also apparently of education, that literacy is no more than an ornament: when one has become an efficient integer of the economy, then it is permissible, even desirable, to be able to talk about the latest novels. After all, the disciples of “practicality” may someday find themselves stuck in conversation with an English teacher.

I may have oversimplified that line of thinking, but not much. There are two flaws in it. One is that, among the self-styled “practical men,” the practical is synonymous with the immediate. The long-term effects of their values and their acts lie outside the boundaries of their interest. For such people a strip mine ceases to exist as soon as the coal has been extracted. Short-term practicality is long-term idiocy.

The other flaw is that language and literature are always about something else, and we have no way to predict or control what they may be about. They are about the world. We will understand the world, and preserve ourselves and our values in it, only insofar as we have a language that is alert and responsive to it, and careful of it….

Ignorance of books and the lack of a critical consciousness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared, public language-language that is either written or being read-illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger.

Think how constantly “the average American” is surrounded by premeditated language, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on TV and radio. He is forever being asked to buy or believe somebody else’s line of goods. The line of goods is being sold, moreover, by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe it, whether or not be needs it or understands it or knows its value or wants it.

This sort of selling is an honored profession among us.

Parents who grow hysterical at the thought that their son might not cut his hair are glad to have him taught, and later employed, to lie about the quality of an automobile or the ability of a candidate. What is our defense against this sort of language-this language-as-weapon? There is only one. We must know a better language.

We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature.

The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters. But to appreciate fully the necessity for the best sort of literacy we must consider not just the environment of prepared language in which most of us now pass most of our lives, but also the utter transience of most of this language, which is meant to be merely glanced at, or heard only once, or read once and thrown away.

Such language is by definition, and often by calculation, not memorable; it is language meant to be replaced by what will immediately follow it, like that of shallow conversation between strangers. It cannot be pondered or effectively criticized. For those reasons an unmixed diet of it is destructive of the informed, resilient, critical intelligence that the best of our traditions have sought to create and to maintain – an intelligence that Jefferson held to be indispensable to the health and longevity of freedom.

Such intelligence does not grow by bloating upon the ephemeral information and misinformation of the public media. It grows by returning again and again to the landmarks of its cultural birthright, the works that have proved worthy of devoted attention.

Excerpted from the essay by Wendell Berry from A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & AgriculturalA Harvest Book. Harcourt Brace & Company. San Diego, New York, London.; The Big Picture Of Reading: In Defense Of Absolute Literacy