Post-Literacy and the Refusal to Read

A colleague who teaches in the humanities at the state college where I work also teaches at a nearby private college.  In the colleague’s description, the private college is perpetually in the grip of a panic over the prospect of a drop in enrollment.  The college’s administration has therefore instituted an unwritten but implacable policy the upshot of which is that the student is always right, no matter how absurd his complaint, and the consequence of which is that instructors must never tax students beyond an infantile minimum of scholarly exertion.  Among the consequences of the consequence are that students refuse to undertake out-of-class reading assignments, fail quizzes related to those assignments, and then lodge complaints with chairs and deans against the instructor.

The colleague has responded by redistricting the semester’s reading to take place entirely in the classroom.  The concession naturally and drastically reduces the amount of reading that the semester can accommodate, but it obviates the career-threatening complaints.

I would describe all of my courses as reading-intensive courses, which is what I take for the inescapable character of any literature course.  My students are for the most part as reading-averse as the students at the nearby private college, but my institution is gratifyingly less prone to mollifying student recalcitrance than its private counterpart.

I make it clear to students that to pass the course (whatever it might be) they must do the reading.  I explain that reading requires exertion that can at times be painful and that to incentivize them to surmount the moral obstacle inherent in clearing the assignment, I will quiz them regularly, but with absolute fairness, to assess whether or not they are discharging their obligation under the semester.

A reading-quiz is a self-verifying instrument: Faced with the results, students tend to acknowledge causes and effects, even when they hold on to their resentment.  Probably in a given course in a given semester, my arrangement provokes sixty per cent of students into completing sixty per cent of the reading.  The top ten per cent complete ninety or ninety-five pages out of a hundred; the bottom ten per cent absolutely refuse to read and either drop out or fail the course.  The eighty per cent of students in between runs the remaining gamut of achievement.

It is an old and oft-told tale how, since the 1970s, the typical reading requirement in humanities courses has dropped.  When I first began teaching as a fellow in UCLA’s English Department in the mid-1980s, the ten-week Survey of World Literature had a ten-item bibliography, some of the items being substantial.  The undergraduates who populate my fourteen- or fifteen-week semesters can handle, at most, six items although I frequently reduce the count to five.  I also make cuts, so that students read, for example, Books I through XII of Homer’s Odyssey, or Books I through VI of Vergil’s Aeneid, and I lecture about the remainder.

Increasingly students tell me that they “can’t understand” the reading.  If they referred to Plato’s Symposium, the confession would be easy to interpret.  Abstract argument, syllogisms, and the refutation of syllogisms pose difficulties for inexperienced readers.  However, the texts that students tell me they “can’t understand” are The Odyssey or a novel by Hawthorne or Melville or a short story by Ray Bradbury.  In the case of The Odyssey, I assign Palmer’s WWI-era prose translation, so as not to traumatize the readership by confronting it with narrative in verse.  Students are telling me that they can’t understand stories, where one thing happens which leads to another and so forth.  Students give voice to a different, a radical species of incomprehension that bodes ill for the culture, the society, and the polity that they will constitute.  Their bafflement harbingers the age of post-literacy.

Western literacy took its foundation in the Greek alphabet, whose innovation scholars date between 900 and 800 BC, and to the development, based on the alphabet, of text and discourse.  In the societies before or contemporary with the society of Archaic Greece, the writing systems were, by comparison with the alphabet, cumbersome, difficult to learn, and awkward for usages other than those associated with bureaucratic functions, like tax-collecting, or as an aide-memoir in liturgical performance.

A Babylonian scribe studied for twenty years to become competent.  Cuneiform writing entailed the memorization of hundreds of signs and characters, some of which functioned as ideograms, others as syllables, and still others as diacritical marks altering the significance of a given sign or character.  Scribal practice tended to idiosyncrasy.  In some cases only a second scribe intimately familiar with the first scribe’s habits could adequately decipher what the first scribe had written.  Write ditto for the scribal practice of Bronze-Age China or Bronze-Age Crete.

A four-year-old can learn the alphabet, with its twenty or so characters, in an afternoon, and he can learn to decipher three-letter words in two or three days of casual lessons.  In a healthy educational environment people of ordinary intelligence can achieve a high degree of literacy by age fifteen or sixteen.  It is the alphabet itself, undoubtedly the most interactive item of technology ever invented, that accounts for its own ease of acquisition.

Scholars of alphabetic literacy such as Eric Havelock and Walter J. Ong have pointed out that the object of their study has other qualities beyond ease of acquisition.  For one thing, alphabetic literacy produces text and discourse, which is to say that it produces literature in its proliferating genres – the organized, impersonal, logically structured discussion of this that and everything.  The proof of the thesis is that the appearance of the alphabet is followed within 100 or 150 years by the appearance of literature and science and that these sequels occur nowhere else.  Greek society was the first alphabetically literate society and Western society has been an alphabetically literate society ever since.

Havelock wrote in his Prolegomenon to the Study of Plato that the text separates the knower from the known.  In oral, as opposed to literate, societies, all knowledge is personal and every dispute is a clash of egos because every criticism is experienced subjectively as a slight.  A text stands outside persons.  Its detachment from any subject or ego permits dispassionate criticism and non-offensive correction.  Alphabetic literacy created the type of sophisticated, objective thinking that flowers forth in Greek philosophy and which forms one of the bases of science.

Another scholar, Neil Postman, argued in a number of books that the high point of literacy in North American society came and went with the year 1950.  Postman also argued that ten years later the same society, under the influence of the so-called media, and suffering the consequences of faddish and destructive movements in primary and secondary education, was already well on its way toward a post-literate condition.

The post-literate subject somewhat resembles the oral subject: His world is a purely personal world; he is ego-centered and yet his ego is a strictly limited one in correspondence with his limited intellectual horizon; he does not precisely lack objective standards, but he tends to resent and therefore to reject them as infringements on his libido.  Like the oral subject, the post-literate subject communicates through what Ong calls the verbo-motor activity of gestures, body-language, and face-making.  He is demonstrative and body-centered.  Like the oral subject, the post-literate subject thinks not for himself but with the group. Like any tribesman or clansman, the post-literate subject is quick to be “offended.” His is not E. R. Dodd’s “guilt culture,” that product of the higher, scriptural religions; his is, rather, Dodd’s “shame culture,” the default ethos of pre-literate societies.

On the other hand, post-literacy is not a relapse into orality, which, in its intact form, has institutions of its own such as folklore and social custom that codify the knowledge essential to living.  Post-literacy can draw on no such resources, for these have only been preserved in modern society in literature, and post-literacy has not only lost contact with literature, but also it simply no longer knows how to read in any meaningful sense.  It cannot refer to the archive to replenish itself by a study of its own past.  Post-literacy is therefore also, to borrow a phrase from Oswald Spengler, history-less.

To achieve the high-water mark of widespread literacy in North America around Postman’s date of 1950 required approximately 2,500 years, from the consolidation of alphabetic literacy in the Mediterranean world to the onset of the Age of Media.  To destroy that achievement has taken only half a century, from the introduction of the “see-say” formula in the reading and writing curriculum to the emergence of that post-literate expedient “tweeting,” which, in its acronyms and facial ideograms, abandons the abstraction of phonetic characters for the limitations of hieroglyphic and rebus-type writing systems.

The two sets of college students discussed in the opening paragraphs of this essay instantiate the cohorts of the post-literate era, who – many, very many although of course not all of them – cannot follow the sequence of episodes in a story or who, like the coddled children of affluence who attend the private institution where my colleague teaches, refuse from petulance to do any reading on their own.

Post-literacy is both a symptom of the general breakdown of North American society and a cause of many other aspects of that disaster.  It combines insidiously, for example, with the trends of narcissism and group-identity that have so distorted our “liberal” politics; it helps make people vulnerable to propaganda and demagoguery; and it stultifies the cultural scene by deleting the ability to think.  Indeed, post-literacy has an ideological expression under such terms as “critical thinking,” which is a euphemism designed to equalize groupthink with actual ratiocination and judgment.  “Offense” and “discomfort” are likewise ideological constructions rooted in the post-literate “shame culture.”

More and more the institutions of higher education – beginning most radically at the supposed top of the academic hierarchy – are themselves post-literate.  What does a Harvard or a Yale dissertation from one of the “studies” programs mean, metaphysically, or what value does it have apart from its snob appeal?  There is an identifiable “higher post-literacy” alongside the ordinary brand of the same.

Post-literacy shows up in weird ways at all levels of higher education.  When I taught briefly at a community college in Syracuse, New York, already somewhat more than a decade ago, one of my students was obviously totally illiterate.  What was he doing in college, even in a community college, and how was he supposed to cope with college-level work?

Easy: The institution had assigned him a “reader,” who read to him out loud the reading assignments related to his coursework; it also assigned him a “scribe,” who took dictation from him and typed up the results, which he then handed in as “written work” under his own name.

57 thoughts on “Post-Literacy and the Refusal to Read

  1. “Easy: The institution had assigned him a “reader,” who read to him out loud the reading assignments related to his coursework; it also assigned him a “scribe,” who took dictation from him and typed up the results, which he then handed in as “written work” under his own name.”

    That would be a fascinating if ridiculous notion for a satirical alternate-history or speculative novel; a dystopian society where literacy is generally available, but knowledge of letters causes a lowering of social status, so that scribes and engineers are regarded as untrustworthy magicians and pariahs, and the ruling aristocracy considers the act of writing and reading to be beneath its dignity.

  2. The literature of ethnography is replete with accounts of how writing strikes pre-literate people as magic. Many of my less-gifted students also regard writing as magic. That is, they do not see it as a meaningful activity, but only as the mysteriously mechanical activity of somehow getting the teacher-pleasing words in the proper, teacher-pleasing places. Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy incorporates the idea that you suggest. I recommend it.

    Also: It is quite likely that the sitting president of the USA did not write the books attributed to his authorship, and could not have written them. We are already in the place that you describe.

    • Indeed. Jordan Shryock discusses exactly this with regard to literacy among Jordanian bedouins. The written word was at times a magical way to discredit ancestors and a way to create history. Goody’s The Domestication of the Savage Mind is useful here as well in describing the cognitive affordances, and occasional biases, of the written word. And speaking of which, literacy has a anatomical signature; reading increases white matter and inter-hemispheric functional connectivity. The divide between literate and other (illiterate, non-literate or post-literate) is not merely quantitative.

  3. How apropos, since I’m right now revising my syllabi for the spring semester and therefore hunting for dispensable readings to pare away. With luck and perseverance, I’ll some day boil the semester’s readings down to a single line. “Four legs good, two legs bad!”

    As you say, a post-literate society will lose objectivity and detachment because arguments and objections will be so closely identified with their authors; although, strangely enough, internet exchanges are very prone to boil over, and they are as detached and anonymous as it is possible to be. So maybe narcissism is a force multiplier in our tetchy, pique prone post-literacy.

    Another thing we lose is the ability to make or respond to complex arguments. My students want everything “boiled down,” as if an argument was a sort of whiskey mash that would be improved by distillation.

    Some years back, I had occasion to read a great many back numbers of the student newspaper on microfilm; mostly issues from the 1930s and 1940s. The school was, at that time, far less selective than it is now, and yet the quality of the prose and thought in those back numbers was vastly superior to what the student newspaper prints today. It was really eye-opening. I’d guess the SUNY Oswego newspaper would show similar decadence.

  4. I have often accessed Oswego’s Palladium Times in its microfilm reels going back to the mid-nineteenth century. Up through the 1950s, the prose was competent, showing a rich vocabulary, using verbs actively, and taking interest in a wide variety of sophisticated issues. Alas for the Palladium Times of the last twenty-five years! Extrapolating to the student newspaper, I’m sure we would detect the identical decline although I only know The Oswegonian from its contemporary incarnation since 2001.

    As for the loss of ability to make complex arguments — consider the Power Point Presentation as the QED of your hypothesis.

    • Powerpoint presentations can be dreadful, but they can also be marvelous in a subject that benefits from a lot of graphic representations. In my own discipline of cultural and historical geography, it permits me to show students an amazing array of primary documents in the form of historical maps, landscape paintings and photographs. Like anything else, this can be taken too far, but at best it is a vast improvement over the graphics in the lectures of my undergraduate years, which were often limited to a continental-scale wall map. Not that many students notice, what with streaming Netflix, Facebook, and whatever else it is they are doing on their laptops.

      • I also make heavy use of the “smart classroom,” which allows me to integrate painting and music into my curricula. I believe that this technology is a net gain for classroom instruction. However, I never reduce my lecture to bullets. When I throw Raphael’s “Academy of Athens” on the screen, I comment in detail.

        Students, laptops, and cell phones: Another colleague of mine (not the one to whom I refer in the essay) reported to me something like a vision that she once had when she looked up from her lecture notes to take in the raked auditorium where she was teaching. Many of the students, particularly the male students, were “texting,” while trying to conceal their delinquency by holding the instrument in their laps. She had the sudden hilarious conviction, the colleague told me, that she had been talking to a classroom-full of shameless wankers.

  5. My husband used to complain that a teacher had hundreds of bosses: the principal, the students, the parents, the school board…..There’s no way to be an effective teacher with that little control over your job, there’s no way to keep frame.

  6. ” Among the consequences of the consequence are that students refuse to undertake out-of-class reading assignments, fail quizzes related to those assignments, and then lodge complaints with chairs and deans against the instructor.”

    And so, the very for-profit nature of the school is what itself causes the fact that the students will end up spending a lot of money on low quality education and essentially get a bad deal for their money, and probably end up working as baristas.

    Such “bugs” in the logic of the marketplace is what gradually turned me away from “doctrinaire” libertarianism.

    Granted education is a special case because the student is both the customer and the product, in a weird way, but as I grow older I find more and more special cases where standard market logic can mess things up.

    • I’m not going to defend libertarianism, but I don’t think the craven capitulation of the college in question is due its being private. I’d guess it is due to the school being marginal, in the sense of very close to going broke and into receivership. The cost of a degree, from the viewpoint of a student, is monetary cost (a) plus effort (b); the benefit of the degree is the pleasures enjoyed while enrolled (c) plus the perceived advantages with respect to future employment (d). If a student is going to enroll, therefore, they must believe that a+b ≥ c+d. Since there is no way for a marginal college to reduce a, it has to reduce b, raise c, and if possible raise d. This is also true of marginal public colleges since their state subvention is tied to enrollment.

      • I’d add one additional factor. Reducing the learning-load means reducing the teaching-load. Cynics on the faculty have a big incentive to endorse the system.

      • Yes, there is what we might call a dialectical relation between reductions in the workload of students and reductions in the workload of professors. I think this is what put an end to the term paper as a standard feature in most college courses. Courses requiring a term paper now get a special designation at my institution, and students must take two of these courses to satisfy a graduation requirement. I wrote plenty of rotten term papers back in the day, but I did at least write plenty (one hen-peck keystroke at a time, with a large bottle of whiteout at my side).

        I may point out the resemblance between texting and wanking and see if any of the young men are thereby dissuaded. It annoys me to no end, but I also say to myself, “there but for the grace of God go I.” I didn’t pay attention to my professors because I was a diligent scholar, but because, apart from daydreaming and looking out the window, there was no alternative.

  7. You know, post-literacy sounds like a handy explanation for the weird phenomenon for the “cult of empathy” growing today. Oral culture, or today, Facebook culture is necessary empathic precisely in the sense that it does not provide knowledge separated from the mental and emotional state of the knower. The pre- or post-literate can only know empathically. For example he cannot tell the difference between disapproving of the actions of a person and hating said person.

    • This corresponds with my experience exactly. Very few moderns are able to engage in rational and impersonal discourse; all criticism is taken personally. I have tried to use “love the sinner, hate the sin” with such folk, and the response was telling: “sounds like hate the sinner to me.” They cannot see the difference between what one does and the person one is.

      Our culture is collapsing. The future promises a truly dark age indeed.

      • I sometimes say, only half-jestingly, that we are living at the beginning of the sixth century. To Kristor: Yes indeed — the eighth century, as Pirenne persuasively argues.

  8. I note also that Facebook and the other so-called social media are heavily pictographic.

    On the post-literate dominance of emotion over ratiocination and self-inspection: The Russian researcher Alexander Luria discovered during his investigations in the 1920s into the psychology of pre-literate people that those people had extraordinary difficulty in introspecting; concomitantly they were almost incapable of self-criticism. Here again the pre-literate traits re-emerge in post-literacy. It is worth repeating, however, that post-literacy is very different from primary orality; post-literacy is a deprived condition that has none of the resources of primary orality, as these have meanwhile largely been obviated by literacy and no longer exist as living institutions.

  9. @TFB – I have just finished a mini-book (25K words in aphoristic style) on the modern mass media – continuing from McLuhan and Postman but with a dash of Luhmann’s systems theory. If you’d like to read it in draft, then drop me an e-mail hklaxness at yahoodotcom.

  10. A mark of my antiquity is that I have absolutely no idea what “TL; DR” means. PS. I just asked my son (age 18) — and now I know! (Best, TFB)

    • A greater mark of your antiquity is that you didn’t simply highlight the term with your cursor, right-click, and hit “Search Google for ….” And I am probably older than you.

  11. Expect the situation to get worse, sir. The next generation isn’t just post-literate; they lack the ability to think or speak, let alone read and comprehend, in narrative form. I work part-time as a speech-language pathologist, and I’ve noticed that not only language-impaired children, but nearly all children, cannot retell a story they have heard nor can they relate a story about something that has happened to them using typical narrative structures. I suppose it is because they do not read nor are they read to.

    Although I advocate reading, may I make a suggestion to you? Consider allowing your students to use audiobooks. They can listen to many texts being read aloud while they are driving or exercising, and at least they will be receiving the information.

    Furthermore, I often recommend the website to the parents of the children with whom I work; many parents themselves are poor readers, so asking them to read to their children isn’t always helpful. However, Librivox is a free website with many texts being read aloud by users. Granted these are not professional readers, and at times it shows, but there are many classic stories for both children and adults from which to choose.

  12. The problem isn’t confined to language, either. People aren’t just illiterate, they’re increasingly ‘innumerate,’ i.e., unable to count. I tutor remarkable numbers of people in algebra, statistics, calculus, etc., who simply cannot do basic multiplication, etc.

    We’re entering a new Dark Age, but this time without a Church competent to preserve the culture and with the added fun of lots of nuclear weapons. Hooray!

    • It is widespread in American primary schools NOT to teach multiplication tables. When confronted, educommisars will lie and blither about “math facts,” which they will claim are both “the same thing” and superior. The result is that below average students don’t learn to multiply. Math facts are the math version of whole language reading instruction. Same basic idea, same basic result. Below average students don’t learn. Here is a news story about one state legislature thinking about mandating times tables.

  13. Apropos of “innumeracy,” here are samples of student prose, as collected by “Ivar the Midwesterner” —

    On Homer’s Odyssey: “Athene helps Telemachus and Odysseus to be reunited and restore order to Troy. This all took place around 450 B.C. but it was not written down until 800 B.C.”

    On Homer’s Odyssey: “In Homer’s Odyssey while Odyssus is gone for ten years trying to get home from Calypso’s isle about 700 B.C. and enduring the many abstacles he faces along the way, the entire time’s he’s trying to restore order with in his selfs life.”

    On Homer’s Odyssey: “Beginning with Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ written down around 800 BC, when infact the events took place in the 4th century. There are many examples of order, tragedy, and some triumph.”

    On Homer’s Odyssey: “The Odessy, written down around 800 B.C., its events are said to actually take place around 500 B.C.”

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  16. A couple of other relevant texts: Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police” (written about the 1990’s but still true, see Texas today) and “The Dumbest Generation” (guess what? Great computing power and a MacBook for every kid does NOT beget better literacy or research, just faster videogames, IM’ing and snapchats).

    I grew up in the early 1960’s and I guess YMMV based on where in the country you were, where I was tthings were not that bad then. We were taught in the old traditions: heavy math and science, languages, heavy reading. That stayed pretty well through the mid/early seventies. That was when what had been a brief renaissance into some interesting alternative thinking died out, to be replaced first by stale proto-Marxism and then, in reaction, stagnant extra-executive-MBA programs and too many lawyers. In all instances, with the humanities being tossed out as not being “useful” in the “real world” of business, or identity politics, or whatever.

    To be fair, history/social studies was not taught well back then, but that is not well taught ANYWHERE. Finding a school with a civics class is like finding a diamond in the grass. There’s a reason all history books stink, and stunk just as bad then: too many cooks, with too many ideologies of all stripes wanting to emphasize/politicize different things, so the books say NOTHING about ANYTHING. Like say, the Civil War. The philosophical and political debates among the Framers in the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers (deep stuff, there). Or the rise of the cities, the Industrial Revolution, the effects of a century’s influx of immigrants. Prohibition and its repeal. The Great Depression. Don’t even begin to talk about the Civil Rights Era or the Vietnam War! Too politicized, even now. I had to learn proper American and world history on my own. That will remain the case, I fear, for anyone taking a true interest today.

    Post literacy is by no means a liberal construct, limited only to the left. You have the dumbing down of controversial or “hard stuff” in many places, yes, and the “removal” of subjects that make some sensitive snowflake people “uncomfortable.” but you also have the anti-science and anti-evolution crowd on the right, see Texas where that fight is still going on, or the asinine things said by some Tea Party-types who clearly weren’t paying attention in history class, if that subject was even taught.

    But all is not bleak. The best schools in the U.S. are on par with those in Europe or China or Japan, as are the students who are able to thrive there. We handicap ourselves in those rankings by basing our results on national averages, which will include the bad with the good. The Chinese in particular game their academic standings by only using results from the big cities, not the entire country.

    • Opposing Darwinism is not necessarily an anti-scientific or anti-intellectual position, as demonstrated by Lawrence Auster and his copious writings on the topic.

      Other than that, no disagreement with what you say.

  17. Only a massively literate civilization like that of North America in the middle of the last century could invent and mass-produce cheap, powerful computers for home use; but mass-produced, cheap, powerful computers for home use can neither sustain nor recreate literacy. For non-literates, digital technology has undoubtedly been a disaster.

  18. Professor Bertonneau,

    Eschew aschemiolatry!

    Thank you for this essay. I recall a conversation over at VFR in which Lawrence Auster and others discussed the presence or absence/loss of text as relating to a society’s ability to think in abstractions, and the arrival of print/text as a marker for the ability of men to self-reflect. This may or may not have evolved into a discussion of the Imago Dei (though I may be conflating threads).

    Your piece begs the question: to what extent does storytelling, story-remembering, story reading and writing cultivate our humanity? It is indeed the age-old argument for the study of the Humanities and most of us here will answer that in a similar way. Do we become more human by being able to tell, remember, write and read stories? Is it an essential aspect of our humanity?

    I also wonder how you regard this trend in light of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Where does the picture fall – Ethos, Pathos or Logos? I see its place inside Logos, however in seeking a differentiation between word and picture, I have the urge to place it (the image) in a shared space between Ethos and Pathos. Can we even talk about the image inside this framework?

    And how, then, does this pertain to Christ as The Word (not The Picture)? Yes, He was the Word made flesh, but still The Word.

  19. The Western pictorial tradition has as its context the Western literate tradition. My guess is that, in a Western context and from the beginning, literacy has penetrated and informed all other activities. Ong claimed that alphabetic literacy had gradually constituted a peculiarly Western mentality, an assumption also in the work of Postman. The least competent of my students are as hopeless in coming to grips with images other than comic-book images as they are in coming to grips with texts, or in writing them.

    As for story telling: I believe it to be a central function of consciousness, perhaps more important than pure ratiocination. Plato’s dialogues are a case in point. Logical argument carries things as far as it can — and then Plato tells a story (the Myth of Er, Atlantis, the Ladder of Philosophy). The story is not less important than the argument; it is at least as important and maybe it subsumes the logical presentation. The beginning of the Western iconographic tradition is in Greek vase painting. Where do the vase-painters derive their images? From Homer. Often indeed the painters put quotations from Homer under their red or black figures. A good deal of Late-Antique Neo-Platonism consists in allegorical commentary on Homer.

    When my students tell me that they can’t understand Homer’s story in The Odyssey (and I believe them), they are announcing a radical breakdown of consciousness, which is why am careful to say that post-literacy is not at all a return to primary orality, but a lapse both from literacy and primary orality into some new, stuttering, twitter-based consciousness, or semi-consciousness.

    I am more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian. I would put pictures under the category of Eros. The best example of what I mean is the way in which, in Orthodox Christianity, the icon supplements the Logos to draw the worshiper toward participation in the Divine Principle through that Principle’s aspect of Beauty. But a canvas by Botticelli has no other essential purpose, and for that matter neither does a fugue by Bach — two other things that the most deprived of my students will also likely never have the opportunity to appreciate because modernity has failed and betrayed them.

    Eschew aschemiolatry… Seconded!

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  22. Part of the problem that I had in college in the Eighties was not reading comprehension, it was attempting to know what the professor wanted you to get out of the book, not what you actually was able to see in the story.

    • Obviously instruction needs to be explicit. Instructors who play the guess-what-I-want-you-to-write game are abusing their office.

      • Guess-what-I-want-you-to-write sounds like something that would be used when the goal isn’t education, but indoctrination (or just winnowing out people who don’t already have the right viewpoint). In that case, a student who can pick up the party line from very limited cues is obviously ‘better’ than a student who has to have everything spelled out.

        It’s much like your other post where all five of the students were able to skip straight past what the quote was saying and come up with a roughly similar ‘logic bad, diversity good’ comment. This kind of ability can’t be trained explicitly, because that would give the game away.

  23. Maistre, in his St Petersburg Dialogues:

    As a consequence of the same error [what Maistre calls “original sins of the second order”], the languages of these savages have been taken for primitive languages, whereas they are and could only be the debris of ancient languages, ruined, if I may put it that way, and degraded, like the men who speak them. In effect, every individual or national degradation is immediately heralded by a rigorously proportional degradation in language. How could man lose an idea or merely the correctness of an idea without losing the word or the accuracy of the word that expresses it? And how, on the contrary, could he extend or sharpen his thinking without this advance being displayed immediately in his language?

    • Charles Baudelaire, the self-described inheritor of De Maistre’s mission, writes of the speech of modern people as so many “confuses paroles” or “confused words,” which they utter randomly to and among themselves. See my article on “Poe’s Frenchman and Baudelaire’s Americans” at The Brussels Journal.

  24. All of those yellow flags in logic and rhetoric, such as the appeal to pity, to prestige, to force, can be seen as the new, literate culture’s critique of the older, oral culture practices.

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  26. It is the world of Nietzsche’s “Last Men.” Nothing too strenuous for me, so don’t ask. If there is pain, have pain-killers ready. These last men undertake nothing that they do not want to undertake. Grown ups (presumably) have become children. Read my book, Debilitating Democracy, to see how this works from the perspective of those who desire to see our culture hit the floor and stay there. .
    Joseph Randolph

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  28. Doesn’t the history of Chinese literature pretty clearly refute the argument being made here about the alphabet? I’m thinking specifically of this statement: “The proof of the thesis is that the appearance of the alphabet is followed within 100 or 150 years by the appearance of literature and science and that these sequels occur nowhere else.” There is quite a significant body of Chinese poetry and philosophical prose from roughly the same period as the invention of the Greek alphabet that would seem to quite clearly disprove this thesis. Also, the Sumerians had both literature (Gilgamesh) and science. Sumerians were a profound influence on later developments in astronomy and we have written, cuneiform texts about astronomical observation.

    • Accurate calendars predate any kind of literacy by thousands of years — they date back to the Late Stone Age. What is called Sumerian Literature, — for example, the Gilgamesh Saga — is known largely from very late Assyrian tablets dating from the Seventh or Sixth Century BC, or later, in fact, than Homer. The more important point is that those tablets could only be produced or deciphered by scribal specialists. Ninety-nine per cent of people were illiterate. The same holds true for the ancient Chinese hieroglyphic writing. By contrast, as I pointed out in the essay, alphabetic literacy can be acquired by almost everyone; four-year-olds can learn its basics. That fact has a huge implication for the society that adopts alphabetic literacy. Also: None of the pre-alphabetic systems developed discourse. Compare the sayings of the Chinese sages with the extended arguments of the early Ionian philosophers. The former remain tied to the limitations of the careful, spoken utterance, or to the limitations of verse. Very early alphabetic works are in verse, but prose makes its appearance swiftly, and in it the operations of the mind are liberated from the restrictions of the old oral mnemonics.

      The sayings of Confucius make interesting reading. They are undoubtedly wise. But one saying follows another rather arbitrarily; or where there is a grouping of ideas, this is the result of centuries of editing of the text. Plato and Aristotle are in a different universe entirely from Confucius.

      Again, ancient China and the ancient Near East had chronicles, but they did not have history, a form of discourse invented by the Greeks once they had become alphabetically literate.

      The Sumerians had mathematics and astronomy, but whether they had science in the modern sense of that term is not obvious. Ditto the ancient Chinese. Science begins when the Greeks take hold of the Mesopotamian achievements and begin to exercise their alphabetically mediated minds on them.

      • “Plato and Aristotle are in a different universe entirely from Confucius.”

        Perhaps, but not an entirely different universe from Confucius’ contemporary Mozi or his follower Menciuz. The early Chinese scholars were perfectly capable of constructing elegant prose and elaborate argument, it just happens that Confucius did neither.

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  33. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “Scholars of alphabetic literacy such as Eric Havelock and Walter J. Ong have pointed out that the object of their study has other qualities beyond ease of acquisition. For one thing, alphabetic literacy produces text and discourse, which is to say that it produces literature in its proliferating genres – the organized, impersonal, logically structured discussion of this that and everything.”

    Good points, although other forms of writing allow for abstract thought as well.

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  35. Pingback: Have we stopped reading? Becoming a post-literate society | Reading, Writing, Research


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