the history of literacy

Mary Harrington:

We can also kiss goodbye to the “marketplace of ideas”. This might have seemed plausible when everyone aspired to long-form, deliberative, rationalism and a broadly shared moral framework. When these are things of the past, we all absorb disaggregated, de-contextualised snippets of information at speed, our reading material rewards us for not concentrating long enough to think something through, and we can see everyone else thinking in real time on our screens? 

Ah yes, I remember it well: that halcyon era when everyone sat around reading Hobbes’s Leviathan and earnestly buttonholing passersby in impassioned search for a shared moral framework.

Harrington relies heavily on a melancholy essay by Adam Garfinkle on the subject of Literacy Lost, and for people like Harrington and Garfinkle I have some questions: 

Do you know anything — anything at all — about the history of literacy? About what people in any society, any society in the whole world, at any point in history, could read and did read? For instance: what percentage of people in France in 1900, or England in 1850, or China in 1800, or the U.S.A. in 1950, had ever in their lives read a single book? If they had read books, how intellectually demanding and substantive were those books? If they were assigned those books in school, did they actually do the reading? How were the books taught to them? That is, were the best qualities of those books explored in ways that were comprehensible and meaningful to the students? How common, or how rare, was the education in “deep reading” that you commend? 

I ask because if you don’t have this information, then you have no business making comparative judgments between our own moment and any moment in the past. And this information is hard to find. What we do know mainly makes us want to know more. You may wish that more people read, and read good books — I certainly do — but without actual data you can’t compare us to our ancestors. 

I will just say this: I think the hidden assumption in essays like Harrington’s and Garfinkle’s is that if people weren’t on social media and staring at their iPhones they’d be reading books instead. And I don’t believe for one second that that’s a safe assumption.