Enforced literacy

Once upon a time, when I was still employable in the Main Stream Media, or at least by the newspaper chain which owned the Ottawa Citizen, I had the pleasure of attending to the whims of a very public-spirited Publisher. An enthusiastic partisan of “enlightened self-interest,” he led each year our corporate campaign to promote Literacy. We, his editorial serfs in contractual bondage, were not directly ordered to sell subscriptions to the paper on streetcorners for the duration of this event. That was a “voluntary” activity, which I quietly avoided. Nor were we ordered, but rather “advised” to do, each in his (or her!) own station, whatever we could to promote the ideal of universal Literacy, if not literacy itself.

By way of acknowledging this advice, I contributed an annual column, either opposing Literacy, or extolling the virtues of illiterate people. If that didn’t help the cause, nothing would. The subtlety of my attack on compulsory education — for it reflected Alexander Pope’s dictum, “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” — was ignored by my usual counter-attackers, focusing as they invariably did upon my own illiteracy and “one-figure IQ.” As I explained to this Publisher, when queried, I was doing my part. For what could I write that would more effectively inspire his goons to go spread the gospel of Literacy among the unlettered masses of Ottawa, Ontario?

My argument often consisted of memoir. It would be of one or another encounter with illiterate farming peasants or hill tribes from my earlier days of wandering in Asia. In them I had found happiness and purpose in life, and a supporting contentment with family and possessions, that in modern city life I had not detected. Also, I had found intelligent full attention: a capacity for observation and learning that was not characteristic of our urban slums. But most of all, I was impressed by their memories.

This last point was brought home to me by an old lady in a village of north-eastern Thailand. By chance I came to visit that village twice, at a remove of some years. My “central” Thai never rose to the level of “appalling,” and my command of the tones was winceingly comic, but here I was trying to make myself understood among speakers of another dialect of Thai.

The old lady in question — something of a sooth-sayer, but that is another story — greeted me on my return with what could have passed for affection. I listened while she delivered some kind of welcoming address. But as she spoke, other villagers began giggling softly, then more loudly, until they would split their sides. Whereas, I remained good-naturedly puzzled — wearing, I’m sure, that gormless, gently grinning expression which nice liberal people wear when they are out of their depth and beginning to be fearful for their lives.

Gradually it dawned, what was so funny. It was not what she was saying, but the way it was said. The old lady had remembered, it seemed, every word I’d spoken, or rather tried to speak, on my last visit — so precisely that she could now do an elaborate parody. The sun shone when I heard what sounded like my own voice, played back as if on a tape-recorder. She had my number. I did not have hers. Her mind, uncluttered by the impedimenta of literacy, had taken everything in.

One of the delights, in reading the old European travellers, as well those so recent as Redmond O’Hanlon, is to follow them into territory where all the “advantages of civilization” disappear, and they are now at the mercy of the natives. Perhaps only in such circumstances, in the natives’ own environment, can one hope to acquire the kind of respect which they in turn will require of their visitors. This would include respect for their technology, insofar as it may consist of things like blow-darts, or jungle traps for the most alert animals. But some modestly graduated version of this experience is available to any city boy, who drifts away from his own social and ecological niche.

I could rehearse here other parts of an argument that will already be familiar to the more than half-educated: e.g. the astounding range and subtlety which the anthropologists and linguists have found, embedded within languages never committed to writing, unless by some industrious Protestant missionary turning out elaborate parodies of the Bible. And here I am not referring to old clichés, such as how many words the Eskimos have for “snow.” (About the same number we have in English, but with a much greater range of modifiers.) And of course not to such tropes as the one about the New Guinea tribe that gets by on a word-list of less than two hundred. (For as I recall, the next visitor found they had more than that in their ornithological vocabulary alone; that most of them also spoke five or six other tribal languages; but that they restricted themselves to a kind of tribal Esperanto when dealing with visitors from farther away.) Modern, urban people are easy prey for almost any nonsense about “primitive tribesmen” — or anyone else not modern and urbane.

Rather I am referring to the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century or two on the extraordinary range, complexity, and grace of oral literatures. This began with the realization that the Iliad could not have been composed by a literate man, nor the Odyssey nor, once the lesson sank in, the Vedas, the Eddas, or any of the formative “texts” from ancient civilizations. Yet these works show every sign of having been “composed” — as opposed to the narrowly literate idea of “redacted.” To this day, one is compelled to smile (contemptuously) at “biblical textual scholars” presenting the Hebrew Genesis as if it had been assembled in drafts by a college committee.

Plato knew better, and though himself a sophisticated cosmopolitan, warned against the dangers, moral as intellectual, of literal-mindedness. The sincere man does not write, but teaches; the wise write only as an amusement, or for the sake of laying down a few reminders in case memory fails them in their old age. Aristotle, likewise, does not assume that the “cultured” depends on the “grammatical,” since the former is in every sense prior. And among my own Gaelic forebears on my mama’s side, there was a clear understanding that the content of books is only “known of.” What is actually known, can be recited.

They were unfortunately the first victims of a Literacy Crusade, sprung in Reformation Scotland, by Calvinist fanatics animated by the demonstrably insane idea that everyone must be forced to read, so they may then be forced to read the Scriptures, then forced to subscribe to the Calvinist interpretation of them, and finally forced to declare that they had come to these Calvinist conclusions entirely on their own. Scotland became the first benighted country in the history of this galaxy to achieve universal literacy, from a system of compulsory state schooling that, in its descendant form, remains an affliction upon every North American child. It is the great enforcer of dark ignorance and servile conformity — or, “democracy” to use the more common term.