For centuries, illiteracy was the standard. Most people did not read or write. History and culture were passed to the next generation by oral tradition. People listened as a priest or leader dictated the law or related the history or read Scripture. Last week in “Taking Stories To The Culture” I noted that the early purpose of stories was to accomplish goals beyond entertainment.
In this day, society values entertainment, perhaps above anything else. We live for the weekend, counting the days until Friday or get-away day before a holiday. We devour stories, in any mode: movies, TV programs, ads that tell stories, books, videos, computer games. If we can make a story out of it, seems as if we will.
I recall in my school days, a portion of each history unit contained a story about the people we were studying—because, supposedly, we would care more about the history if we identified with the little boy gathering sticks or living in the mud hut, or whatever the fictionalized idea was about the home life of the various people. In truth, that was a precursor to where we are today with our love of—maybe even, preoccupation with—stories.Our society went so far as to make illiteracy a thing of the past. A first step here in the US was to make public school mandatory for children up to a certain age—with that age slowly moving upward. And downward. Kindergarten was once optional. Now it’s mandatory in most states.
Now that we have achieved a high percentage of literacy—with countries around the world achieving a degree of similar success—how could we conceive of an illiterate society once again?
Think of the trends. First, signs at airports, where international travelers were provided with pictures to guide them, rather than words in a foreign language, became increasingly popular and wide spread. Now restaurants follow suit, putting pictures on bathroom doors and the trash cans and such. Here in SoCal we long ago left pedestrian signs that said “Walk” in favor of a picture of a two-legged humanoid in full stride. We’ve most recently added an automated voice that counts out the seconds left before the walking man becomes a red hand, palm out in the stop position.
But there’s more. Blogs are losing ground to videologs. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo have given birth to sites like VideoLog, a video log sharing site. Then there are audio books, whose popularity seems to be on the increase.
All these new technologies and methods of passing along information seem to be expanding the ways in which we humans can consume what we want the most: stories.
And yet, one thing seems to be the common thread: none of these new forms requires literacy. So, is the trend toward illiteracy and away from the ability to read and write? Will only “the scholars” retain those skills?
Already, with the way many people send text messages, the need to know how to spell is passe. As it happens, I rarely type a text message because I can speak into the little microphone, and up comes my message. Auto spell and spell check have also made the need to actually spell correctly less and less important. Add in the fact that the computer has nearly done away with the need to learn handwriting, and an app like Grammarly does all the heavy lifting with grammar, a writer hardly needs to learn to write.
I certainly could be wrong about this, but in my observation—no official study or research—trends don’t generally reverse themselves. They do change, but they rarely (I can only think of a couple examples) revert to what they had been.
Consequently, if our society is in fact moving toward illiteracy, it certainly won’t look like the illiteracy of old. For one thing, it will be more or less voluntary. In other words, the means to learn reading and writing will be there, but people will choose not to bother. For another, video changes the literary landscape, which may or may not be a good thing.
I suggest that the more we rely on video, the less we will rely on our imagination.
There are other residual consequences that a loss of literacy would cause. For one, a person would only be able to research that which is preserved in audio or video form. No going back to read old newspaper accounts or studying documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Only the “scholars” would retain that ability, and the rest of us would be dependent upon their transmission of what they choose to transmit.In other words, in an illiterate society, controlling information will be easier and easier. We’ve seen in the past how certain authoritarian governments have banned books or burned them, as a way to prevent contrary viewpoints from infiltrating society. But if illiteracy spreads, if people become dependent upon video, a tyrannical government only need control one thing: the internet.
Anything deemed “hate speech” or “fake news” is already under the close scrutiny of the censors. And of course, “hate speech” or “fake news” is, in part, dependent upon a person’s world view. I know a long list of atheists that would categorize evidence to support a worldwide flood as “fake news.” And others would be quick to call any statement about the human sin nature, “hate speech.”
All that to say, reading could be going out of style, but if it does, an illiterate society will suffer the consequences for it.
What do you think? In twenty-five years will people be reading as much as they are today? Will schools still emphasize reading the way they do now?
As a side issue, are there any dystopian stories that you know of in which the society has become illiterate? I’ve trying to remember if anyone in Hunger Games ever read. It seems as if there was no awareness that the society was now illiterate. Rather, there just didn’t seem to be a need to read or write (apart from the few). But I could be wrong about that. Curious what your thoughts are.