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.