June 25, 2012
Speaking Up For Illiteracy

From Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Harper & Brothers, 1943:

Universal literacy helps business by extending the reach of advertising, and increasing its force; and also in other ways. Beyond that, I see nothing on the credit side. On the debit side, it enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel and debauch such intelligence as is in the power of the vast majority of mankind to exercise.

There can be no doubt of this, for the evidence of it is daily spread far and wide before us on all sides. More than this, it makes many articulate who should not be so, and otherwise would not be so. It enables mediocrity and submediocrity to run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste. In a word, it puts into people’s hands an instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and the mischief thus wrought is very great.

What about this? Is Nock right on the money? Half right? Provocative at least? Crazy as a loon?


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at June 25, 2012 12:31 PM
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Although everything else in the passage could have been written this morning, “mischief” is no longer the only word that would work for us in that context; read on. "Schadenfreude” might work today, also, maybe because there might be more hip people around to enjoy the mischief than there were seventy years ago. I’ll always remember the spectacle of my boss’s boss (a most powerful woman, and a Ph. D., to boot) praising a subordinate during a meeting for the ingenuous way he handled some nasty problem. She obviously liked the word. She used it twice that afternoon, and in as many breaths. It's too bad I don't remember anyone in the meeting saying "yeah, way to be ingenuous, Bill!" by way of congratulation; maybe we'll have to wait another seventy years for that one.

Posted by: Kid Sheleen on June 25, 2012 2:15 PM

What Nock failed to mention is reason. Being literate can't liberate one from an inability to reason. Nothing is more an enemy to reason that literature. It often helps, but one has to avoid traps in reason like one would avoid the plague. However, they stand on every corner news stand and are almost impossible to avoid in any so called civilized society.

Teaching someone to read only teaches the artist how to hold a paint brush and manage the colors on the palate. It does not produce the artist nor does it produce the ability nor the desire to produce the masterpiece. Mr. Cram's cathedrals might have been the metaphor if Mr. Nock had made the same observation.

Posted by: Cool Hand Geek on June 25, 2012 5:59 PM

Reading and writing skills should be taught (and learned) side-by-side with critical thinking skills.

Posted by: Phil on June 25, 2012 9:28 PM

Basic reasoning is sorely needed in our schools, but many would oppose it due to the challenge it poses to their control of the masses.

As for literacy, I think the internet has proven that being literate does not make one articulate.

Posted by: John Anthony Curran on June 25, 2012 11:25 PM

Literacy allows people to receive (and possibly digest) information that lies way beyond their narrow personal living conditions. When Gutenberg invented print, the clericals lost their monopole to The Word of God. The powers that be always rejected literacy, so they invented radio and TV to reinstall their monopoly to information.

To be able to read means to be able to think twice.

So, I believe for once Albert J. Nock was dead wrong.

Posted by: Peter on June 26, 2012 10:55 AM

For a person in a restricted world, literacy provides access to witnesses who can vouch for other frames of reference. There's proof in books that the words spoken and shouted by nearby living voices are not the only possible words.

If books didn't have subversive potential, why would prison wardens, dictators, theocrats and PTAs go to such trouble to ban them?

http://www.theawl.com/2012/06/paper-in-prison
http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=2993&Submit=Submit
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedclassics/reasonsbanned

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on June 27, 2012 8:32 PM
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