For and Against Literacy

It’s funny. I’ve never been particularly attached to literacy as an abstract idea. I think that a civilization could flourish and do well by its citizens even with relatively low literacy rates. I know that seems to make me a bit of an oddball in today’s world, where it is self-evident to so many that higher literacy rates are an unquestionable good.

At the same time, I do think that literacy is valuable for some things, and has even a central place in the cultivation of the best of human potential. So while I don’t think that everyone needs to be literate (hypothetically, at least), I think it would be much worse if no one were literate. Literacy isn’t good in itself for every person, necessarily, but it also must not be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth (not that there’s any danger of that happening in the near future).

So, why am I not an absolutist when it comes to the value of literacy? Reading is a hugely important part of my life, and so it might seem as if I would be more likely to overstate its importance than to downplay it.

To me, literacy seems like money, or firearms, or fame, in that it can be used for good ends, but can also be disastrous when misused. Not every person should own a working gun, as even the most ardent gun rights activists will admit. On balance, it might be better for most people to have firearms, or it might be the case that the dangers outweigh the benefits, in which case maybe it is better for most people not to. As we know full well, there are opinionated people on both sides of the question, precisely because it clearly is a valid question to ask.

Literacy, in my view, belongs in the same category. We underestimate how powerful the written word can be, and how much evil as well as how much good it can bring about. In our world, it would be hard to be a functioning, contributing adult without some basic level of literacy, and so we have no choice but to promote literacy and work to curb its dangers. In other circumstances, however, it is not clear to me that widespread literacy would need to be an urgent priority.

Think of the farming family who live on land that they own, learning skills and stories orally rather than from books. They work hard for two thirds of the year, providing food for themselves and enough extra to sell or trade for other necessities. In their leisure, they prepare food, they tell stories and jokes, they make music together. They can be wise and virtuous and just and happy, peaceful and prosperous and connected, without any need for letters. A vision of the world that treats literacy as a pressing need has no place for such a way of life, which, for me at least, is a serious problem.

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