A Brief Rise, and Fall of Literacy (revised)

“Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Back in the sixties, a professor could refer to Thomas Jefferson and John Milton as having been considered “universal scholars” in their own time, and have some of their students understand what they are talking about.  That is more difficult today, because the definition of universal scholarship has been obscured by the explosion of technical and academic disciplines.

By the mid 18th century, the general fields of history; art, music, classic literature, mathematics, religion, philosophy, agriculture, architecture, and engineering had grown considerably since the dark ages (a time of ignorance and superstition different from today which is a time of superstition and ignorance), but still diminutive (by today’s standards) such that an aggressive student might have accomplished a good working understanding of almost all divisions of academic study.  To expect to see that happening today would be laughable.  Even Mr. Jefferson would be considered an idiot in the physics department of practically every university on the planet (unless he was allowed a couple of hundred years to get up to speed).

At the pace we are going, a podiatrist may soon specialize in only one knuckle associated with a particular toe; perhaps only the toenails of particular toes themselves.  A general practitioner may recognize that you have a foot, but if the problem is an ingrown toenail on the big toe of the left foot, you will need a referral to a specialist.  A right foot big toe specialist will not be able to help you.  His education and practicum will have him limited, and professional ethics will prohibit him, from operating outside his designated field.  Apparently, you will be paid better if you only know about one toe than doctors who understand the whole foot.

Today, you cannot learn everything: there isn’t enough time in a life.  Besides, the world’s data-banks grow at a speed you cannot humanly keep pace with.  Information thought to be true yesterday becomes ancient and silly by tomorrow.  The concentric circles that define what fields of specialty can entail, grow more numerous leaving the balance of the huge body of ever-growing information barely on the peripheral edges of tunnel vision.

Consequently, a lot of what has been learned over the last two centuries remains today misunderstood by so many people.  If you don’t believe me, try to strike up a conversation about Darwin’s ideas on the origin of species with just about anybody that doesn’t have to know it in order to do their job!  Even so, it would be absurd to think you could master all academic fields today: no sane person expects that of themselves, or anybody else.  It hasn’t been expected of anyone since the latter part of the 18th century.

Just the basic ability to read and write (and to the exclusion of the serious practice of scholarly studies) has been segregated to a very small percentage of the total population throughout most of the known history of mankind.  Even chieftains and kings have at times been dependent on certain clerics to tell them what was written (thus often leaving a chief or king at the mercy of unscrupulous motives).

As children, we were told that the publication and widespread distribution of a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense” written by Thomas Paine fueled the desire for independence in this country.  But generally speaking, the vast majority of inhabitants here in these “colonies” couldn’t read.  They could, however, hear fiery speeches made by others who (at least claimed) could read.

Just because a person held a clerk’s title did not insure their literacy: in fact, many clerks had (with a great deal of practice) proven their literacy by simply writing their own name, or a certain passage of scripture in front of witnesses (some of whom themselves could neither read nor write), and by doing so, earned themselves a salary (this was an old practice that wandered into the new world with immigrants from all over Europe, and old Mesopotamia).

Whenever news would come to town, these (counterfeit) scholars were expected to read it to everyone else.  Letters, fliers, pamphlets and other news were “read” to a gathering of locals who stood in awe of the talents of their clerk.  Since in some cases the clerk couldn’t actually read, he just pretended to read it saying whatever he thought the document might have said (or wanted it to say).

Today, we sometimes get the impression that such a practice is used by (but not limited to) news networks to tell us what was said in the offices of our government.  It also appears to be used by people holding office in government when called upon to describe some proposal or bill written by some other elected official from a different (dogma) party.

The Renaissance did not bring about universal literacy, but it did affect the attitudes of the (still small) minority who could read.  Some students today think brilliance was breaking out like the chicken pox all over the place during the Renaissance, but that wasn’t the case.  Then as now, many might be  “thinking outside the box”, and even when doing so, it often just meant slightly changing the dimensions of the box itself (e.g. The Galileo Galilei Inquisition; see: http://www.mcm.edu/academic/galileo/ars/arshtml/galileo3.html).

It is imperative to understand the implications of literacy vs. illiteracy on the public at large.  Authority over resources (including the land, sea, air and virtually everything and everybody in and on them) is money, though not necessarily in the context of what most people call money (see: http://www.monetary.org/treasurytalk.htm ).  The imbalance measured by the disparities in wealth between a minute ruling class and a huge impoverished working class cannot remain so if the poor are allowed to be “educated”.

So, it is from this jumping off place that I wish to address a misconception about the perceived value of educating the public.  While the storehouse of knowledge expands, educators all over the globe are aware and concerned about the recent universal decline in literacy.  Current social complexities around the globe make finger-pointing easy, but real solutions remain obscure.  Why?  Could there be any benefit to having the majority of the working poor on this planet to remain uneducated?

Here’s a little story:

A year and a half or so ago, I was talking with a friend of my neighbor’s son who was still in high school at the time.  These boys were considered bright children who made good grades and were also well rounded in music, art and sports.  The subject of my being a veteran came up, and the conversation ran something like this:

Him:  “Which war?  Desert Storm?”

Me:   “No, Vietnam.  You probably studied about it in school.”

Him:  “Not really very much.  Was it before, or after World War Two?”

Me:   “(after a long pause) Before.  I was too old for World war Two.”

Him:  “Oh.”

At first I thought the young man just wasn’t paying attention.  But in all fairness, when I was his age if you wanted me to pay attention to something, it had to be wearing a skirt.  But that isn’t it!  They don’t really teach the Vietnam war in high school anymore.  I find that they haven’t been teaching very much about it now for almost twenty years. In some systems, it has barely been mentioned, and just as a pointless war.

If you ask high school history teachers why, they’ll tell you they don’t have time.  I asked more and more, always getting the same answer…almost word for word: “We don’t have time to teach everything!” Twenty years has produced a new generation of voters who have been put at a disadvantage as far as history is concerned.  It isn’t just the facts they do not know; it is the body of information that they do not understand.

I was preoccupied for awhile about so many teachers having said the same thing about how teaching history has to be short-changed.  I knew something was bothering me about it, but I couldn’t pin-point it exactly.

Then what struck me was that somehow, it appears that you don’t teach what you don’t wish to be learned anymore than you’d teach to whom you wish to remain uneducated.  Of course they don’t have time!  It was never intended for the curriculum to allow enough time to teach what you don’t want them to know!  But to think this way is a little disconcerting because I have a low threshold for conspiracy theories.  Surely there must be something else, so I started looking around.

Back in 1985, President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev signed the U.S. – USSR Education Exchange Agreement. It put American technology into the hands of Communist strategists and, in return, gave us all the psycho-social strategies used in Communist nations to indoctrinate Soviet children with Communist ideology and to monitor compliance for the rest of their lives.  Monitoring compliance: that’s what everybody is doing.

We’ve been using it ever since.  Part of it is in a (presumed liberal) program (sponsored by presumed conservatives) called “No Child Left Behind” where teacher compliance is monitored (supposedly).  That it is working is a delusion, but fits well into the overall sub-process of perception management. A simpler word might be propaganda.

There are still superlative students (I was never one) who learn, grow, innovate and develop ideas, but the fruits of their work feed the minds of an ever diminishing percentage of the total population.  So, we should take a closer look and attempt to recognize the perceived value of an uneducated work force.

Prior to the War Between the States, it was policy (and law) in several Southern states to not allow slaves to learn to read and write.  Even in sectors that encouraged reading (so they could read the Bible), they discouraged writing since it was a symbol of station.

It all has to do with making social control (which is essentially the policing of a civilization in an attempt to maintain a civil stability) easier; more manageable.  It is behavior modification.  What I mean here is the less a public is expected (or allowed) to think for itself, the easier it will be for someone else–some controlling faction to set standards of behavior, and to convince their underlings to believe it is their duty to behave accordingly.  They will be fearful of:

a.) being punished, to the extent of having the necessities of life withheld;

b.) becoming victims of some unforeseen danger kept at bay by their shamans, chieftains and witchdoctors.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt said:    “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”, he was encouraging the American people to believe in their own abilities to face and deal with the depression as a solvable rather than unsolvable problem.

The whole country was confused and afraid facing issues that seemed so overwhelming that they could potentially paralyze us.  Some years later, new fears arose at the onset of WWII (the commitment of the people, admittedly through perception management, showed some success with scrap metal drives and “Victory” gardens, although the compliance to rationing was frequently undermined through black markets).

But Roosevelt was also hitting (knowingly or not) on something else.  I’m sure you remember Aesop’s fable about how one day Henny-penny was picking up corn in the barnyard when–whack!–something hit her upon the head (an acorn?). “Goodness gracious me!” said Henny-penny; “The sky’s a-going to fall; I must go and tell the king.”…and of course you also remember how Foxy-Loxy managed the fears of the barnyard  fowl…to his distinct advantage.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary…” –H. L. Menchen

A good example of this from 20th century history is how the Nazis methodically took over Germany.  As he stood in the dock at Nuremberg, Hitler’s arch crony Hermann Goering said:

“Of course the people don’t want war.  But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.  Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  That is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and then denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger.  It works the same in any country.”

Besides all of our irrational fears (and the corresponding need to hang on to the illusion of being “safe”), we are shutting down our mills and factories.  We need fewer people who can think and take initiatives, and more who are stock clerks and vendors to sell merchandise made by internationally funded technicians (who invent nothing by themselves).

They will work for a wage as long as authority needs them to, and if promoted, they will monitor the compliance of others.  The clerks and vendors are to simply provide for the consumer needs of other clerks and vendors, and to the profit needs of those who monitor their compliance.  (See: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/02/its-easier-to-teach-compliance-than-initiative.html ).

Out of the thousands of years of human existence, it has only been during the last six or seven decades that world literacy seemed all that important.  But for the past few years, it has been on the decline in the Western Hemisphere, and with potentially disastrous effects on the working class.

It isn’t just that more people are failing to learn to read, but that even college graduates fail to comprehend what they read.  By this I’m not talking about complex ideas and deep literary works as much as product labels and usage instructions (see: Literacy of College Graduates Is on Decline – washingtonpost.com )

So how might we this?  Dominators don’t teach what they wish the dominated to NOT know, and of course never teach to any group they would wish to remain uneducated.  That we cannot teach everything (with the odds being it might not be possible to learn everything) has in some cases been the reduction to not teach anything at all, except how to perform exploitable tasks.

Forgive me if my views seem cynical.  Certainly, I do know that a good education is still possible, and important to many good people in this country, and it has been that way since the beginning.  Thomas Jefferson considered it crucial if this country was to survive.  I join those who hold to that thinking, but add the caution that we should watch the trends that could enslave our children.

Though it’s possible to do so, I’m not so much pointing fingers at willful intent, as much as at the fears that demand hiring by corporate image; insist on mindless allegiances, require unquestioned loyalties, and persevere to see that we all behave in accordance to norms whether anybody knows or remembers why such rules were set in the first place.  The acceptance of thoughtless compliance is the enemy of freedom, and is not the proper way of those who really care for what they are doing, and for where they are going.  The Buddha, Jesus, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Voltaire, and even Gandhi all encouraged committed direction over compliant direction.  They saw it as the way free minds move closer to understanding, desiring to do the right thing.  In that respect, I do not disagree with them.

“Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this; that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it.” -Bakunin

Please take note that I’m not suggesting we break rules just for the sake of breaking them (we all did enough of that silliness back in school), but that we should simply take ownership in the right to think, along with the personal responsibility to do some of that thinking for ourselves.


11 responses to this post.

  1. This is an important document, Van. With your permission, I’d like to pass it on to some others who I think will agree with me. Thanks for keeping me on your list.


  2. Posted by little d on March 2, 2010 at 12:19 am




    Bravo VanTwain……..Excellent !!!!


  3. nice piece.


  4. Posted by SD on March 6, 2010 at 4:39 am

    (From e-mail) Van, Excellent thinking and, as always, your writing is top notch.


  5. Posted by BB on March 7, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    This is thoughtful, researched & informative. Good work.


  6. Posted by Phyllis on March 8, 2010 at 2:12 am

    I enjoyed the piece and agree (we’ve discussed this before) on the limited literacy I see daily in my work. However I do think the ability to frighten the majority of people is being gradually undermined by the Internet. I notice that the Chinese are carefully managing the information available to their people through this medium but also note that this is becoming more difficult even for them. I’d be interested in your response to this possibility.


  7. Posted by Shaun on September 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Wow Van, very good work…what a compilation of history and Van-ethics combined! I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading more. By the way…Mr. Van (Winkle), you have aged so gracefully since the start of the Big War.


  8. Posted by Brett Wood on March 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I think that the direction our education system is less one that is purposeful and more a natural direction of government in general. Public education is a socialist idea that inevitably leads to these kind of failures. Not to say that I don’t agree with public education, but we must be close guards of it. The dangers of what our children are not taught are just as applicable as those that they are taught.


  9. …it ain’t rocket surgery! but it works!


  10. Posted by Lynn Sigmon Foes on May 1, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Now I’m really frightened, Van! Seriously, we must take a look at how public education is becoming the stepchild of public service, not the foundation of democracy that once led to innovation and a more equitable society. To be literate necessitates being mindful, thoughtful, and creative on many levels. Because we are social learners, literacy begins with oral stories and conversations, drawing pictures and and playing games, then reading and writing in response to literature. Public schools no longer do these things because of the pressure to pass the test, be accountable to the public, run like corporations, you-fill-in-the-blank. There are beacons of light and resistance, but they are becoming more rare each year. Teachers rarely stay with the profession for more than five years because the art of teaching and creativity has been replaced by rote lessons, public bashing, and unrealistic expectations to cure the ills of poverty and inter-generational illiteracy. We have the resources to change this, and teacher unions can forge partnerships with schools and parents to do so.


  11. Posted by Anne O'Neal on June 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Excellent article, Van. Thank you for messaging this to me. It is detrimental today that we have so many young people that either will not or cannot think for themselves. Too much government, red tape, and robotic demands of instructors in the education system leaves little impulse to be creative and yes, think outside the box.


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