This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Against literacy

“The liberal bourgeois mind is proud of the abolition of censorship, the last restraint, while the dictator of the press keeps the slave-gang of his readers under the whip of his leading articles, telegrams, and pictures. Democracy with its newspaper has completely expelled the book from the mental life of the people. The book-world, with its profusion of standpoints that compelled thought to select and criticize, is now a real possession only for a few. The people reads the one paper, “its” paper, which forces itself through the front doors by millions daily, spellbinds the intellect from morning to night, drives the book into oblivion by its more engaging layout, and if one or another specimen of a book does emerge into visibility, forestalls and eliminates its possible effects by “reviewing” it…What is truth? For the multitude, that which it continually reads and hears.”

~ Oswald Spengler

 “…we really can make a move on our children’s behalf. We really can refrain from thrusting our children any more into those hot-beds of the self-conscious disease, schools. We really can prevent their eating much more of the tissues of leprosy, newspapers and books. For a time, there should be no compulsory teaching to read and write at all. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write—never…”

~ D.H. Lawrence[1]

Loud and clear we proclaim it: the ability to read does not, of itself, make a man any better off in terms of wisdom and meaning. It is a neutral technical skill, but today literacy has been transformed into an ideal—almost a moral ideal, and perhaps even a pseudo-doctrine—of the modern world, such that attempts are now made to apply it to all indiscriminately, as if it were an absolute good in itself, without respect to the individual aptitudes of the person, the idiosyncrasies of culture, or the real needs of civilization. Even insofar as this ‘war on illiteracy’ has been successful, it has driven the illiterate into extinction only so that the ignorant could inherit the earth.

It is interesting to see how frequently our social projects are construed as ‘wars’ on this or that thing, which is indicative of the fact that they are efforts against nature, efforts to force an outcome that will not be forthcoming if pursued by any normal, non-violent means.

This new ideal is a product of two fixations, which it is impossible to over-emphasize: one is the egalitarian mentality which demands that no differences between men be acknowledged; the second is the belief in progress, which attempts to carry each good to its extreme limit, transforming it into its opposite.

The underlying assumption was that the only thing keeping men ignorant and oppressed was their inability to have free access to information. Equipped with literacy and this coveted information, it was believed that truth would naturally follow and flourish in civilization. This, unfortunately, has never been the case.

Wilhelm Roepke reflected on these,

…high hopes which a progress-happy era had pinned on the fight against illiteracy. We can but marvel that those who cherished these naive hopes—some of them may still be about—never seem to have realized that what really counts is what all these people are to read once they have learned how to read. Nor do they seem to have asked themselves whether the standardized educational system by which illiteracy is eradicated was always favorable to a wise choice of reading matter.[2]

He then quotes Russell Kirk:

The average Englishman reads nothing except a thin and vulgar daily newspaper, though he has been compelled to go to school for half a century; while in Portugal, the state with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe, the reading of serious books and journals per head of population, is much higher than in enlightened Britain. The broad nineteenth-century public for English literature, in short, has very nearly ceased to exist.[3]

In short, literacy is a means—good within a certain limited context, instrumentally, but not good, much less necessary, in every context and for every person. If this skill, once superfluous to most men, has become a necessity for us, we must ask what has changed that has made us needier than our fathers. Coomaraswamy offers us an answer:

For a proletariat, literacy is a practical and cultural necessity. We may remark in passing that necessities are not always goods in themselves, out of their context; some, like wooden legs, are advantageous only to men already maimed.[4]

Having reduced the mass of humanity from craftsmen/artisans to a homogenous pool of technical laborers, a ‘labor force’, skilled or unskilled, we can see that literacy has indeed become vital for a man’s usefulness in the labor market.

We have just described the economic consequence of the fight against illiteracy. The cultural consequences have, arguably, been worse. To refer against to Coomaraswamy:

Universal compulsory education, of the type introduced at the end of the last century, has not fulfilled expectations by producing happier and more effective citizens; on the contrary, it has created readers of the yellow press and cinemagoers.[5]

The ability to understand grammar and basic vocabulary will not guarantee intelligence any more than the ability to start a car will guarantee that the user will be able to drive it safely, much less be able to find his way from one place to another. Men have not been enabled to raise themselves through the skill, but are rather subjected through it to more base forms of entertainment, not to mention subjection to relentless propaganda which is especially effective when delivered through that superficial and hasty medium, the newspaper, which today has been translated into the internet and social media, degrading ‘readers’ even more.

The ideal of literacy is a result of the confusion of process and substance, which is to say, it is a confusion quantity and quality, knowledge and wisdom. “Learning and wisdom have often been divided; perhaps the clearest result of modern literacy has been to maintain and enlarge the gulf.”

It was against this abuse that D.H. Lawrence reacted, and perhaps now we can understand his prescription:

Let all schools be closed at once. Keep only a few technical training establishments, nothing more. Let humanity lie fallow, for two generations at least. Let no child learn to read, unless it learns by itself, out of its own individual persistent desire.[6]

None of the most virile and colorful elements of culture would be lost by adopting Lawrence’s attitude. He merely agrees with Whitman, who questioned his contemporaries:

For know you not, dear, earnest reader, that the people of our land may all read and write, and may all possess the right to vote — and yet the main things may be entirely lacking?[7]

On the contrary, it would open the way from the technical, process-based approach to education, back toward a more personalistic approach. Not only could the memory more than compensate for the information necessary for most tasks and trades, but, more importantly, where education existed it could once again take the form of a master who “forms” his pupils, which is a far different thing from the modern school where the teacher merely “administers” a curriculum. It is to this that Coomaraswamy further attests:

There are hundreds of thousands of Indians even now who daily repeat from knowledge by heart either the whole or some large part of the Bhagavad Gita; others more learned can recite hundreds of thousands of verses of longer texts. From the earliest times, Indians have thought of the learned man, not as one who has read much, but as one who has been profoundly taught. It is much rather from a master than from any book that wisdom can be learned.[8]

By ignoring all this we end with 6 million literates who lack most of the experience and all of the prudence of their illiterate grandparents. The illiterate were eliminated, only to be replaced by the ignorant.

For example, the modern man’s illiterate 19th century American counterpart, lacking a television and unable to make use of any newspapers, would have engaged with and authentic, organic enthusiasm the pressing issues of his own neighborhood and village. He would have heard whispers, perhaps, of great wars and happenings 1000 miles away, but would have known that they are well beyond his ability to fix, and therefore he would not have allowed far-removed concerns to eat up his limited stock of worry and concern.

The modern man who reads his columnists and watches his evening news, does not know a single member of his own city council, but nonetheless feels compelled to speak his mind on global, regardless of his experience or knowledge. The illiterate man is protected from this peculiar brand of idiocy by the very deprivation that we like to blame for his ignorance—but it should be clear that the ignorance we attribute to him is actually our own.

[1] D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious (Rockville: Serenity, 2008), 70-71.

[2] Humane Economy, 59.

[3] Humane Economy, 59.

[4] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear of Literacy, 53.

[5] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear of Literacy, 53.

[6] D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, “First Glimmerings of Mind.”

[7] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear, 53

[8] Coomaraswamy, Bugbear, 53

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