from In Defense of Literacy

Snug within the book-bricked walls of a University, it may not seem that literacy is under threat. However, there is a great tradition of humanisticcommentators taking on the role of reminder to bid us keep in mind that literacy in its broadest conception is not just about the ability to decipher meaning out of written speech. Rather, it allows mankind in its present moment to take into account the lessons (and failures, and strivings…) of the past, and to conceive of a future informed by the past and the present. Literacy is as much a moral and political as an educational need.

In the excerpt below, of likely interest to Core community members, the American author Wendell Berry steps up to the podium to remind us that literacy is something that exists alongside, and sometimes opposed to, commercial and professional interests. He writes:

Ignorance of books and the lack of a critical consciousness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared, public language — language that is either written or being read — illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger. Think how constantly the average American is surrounded by premeditated language, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on TV and radio. He is forever being asked to buy or believe somebody elses line of goods. The line of goods is being sold, moreover, by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe it, whether or not be needs it or understands it or knows its value or wants it. This sort of selling is an honored profession among us. Parents who grow hysterical at the thought that their son might not cut his hair are glad to have him taught, and later employed, to lie about the quality of an automobile or the ability of a candidate.

What is our defense against this sort of language — this language-as-weapon? There is only one. We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.

Hear, hear.

This excerpt comes from Berry’s essay “In Defense of Literacy,” as appears in the collectionA Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Harcourt Brace & Company 1970/72, reprint 2012). Read the text online at Google Books, or swing by Mugar or the Core office to borrow a copy.

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