I have been reading excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journals. I am fascinated by the depth of education that was considered normal during his lifetime – at least for the small segment of the population who could consider university. I enjoyed the beauty of his prose and the depth of his thoughts for a few pages until I came across an entry that stated, “I am now nineteen years old…”
My god! When I was nineteen years old I was considering things along the lines of, “a ducky and a horsey,” compared to Emerson. I am now in my seventies and am an intelligent person, yet I am still barely literate in regards to the great ideas and themes that have guided humanity’s best minds; the writers, philosophers, statesmen, artists, poets, and spiritual teachers throughout the ages.
Lionel Trilling, in his, “The Liberal Imagination,” states: “In the nineteenth century, in this country as in Europe, literature underlay every activity of mind. The scientist, the philosopher, the historian, the theologian, the economist, the social theorist, and even the politician were required to command literary abilities which now would be thought irrelevant to their respective callings.”
A liberal society, it seems, is of necessity a literate society in the deepest sense of the word. In contrast, a society which communicates, forms opinions, and takes action based on tweets, memes, and emotionally laden sound-bites is not truly a democracy and cannot long endure.
As my culture grows more illiterate with every new technology of “communication,” I find myself wondering if the human species will lose all of the gains that brought us out of the dark ages. The advent of the printing press and the great strides toward universal education that it enabled caused a leap in the use of the Romance languages, including English. As vocabulary and depth of word usage increased, so did depth of human self-understanding and empathy for other humans. The more nuanced words became, the more nuanced our experience of emotions became. Poetry and literary language expressed subtle variations of feelings and senses. Reading increased our awareness of these subtleties and deepened our experience of life, love, and all the infinite varieties of human experience. We were no longer limited to the basic grunts of lust, fear, and hunger.
As emoticons and twitter shortcuts proliferate and dominate the interpersonal communication of so many, I fear we may be returning to a society of basic grunts and gestures. Nuance made possible by sophisticated language is dying out in interpersonal relationships and, more dangerously, in government. Some argue that social media is truly connecting us with each other, but I believe that such connection is by its very nature limiting us to the most basic and primitive experiences of humanity rather than opening us to ever deeper understandings of our relationships and our place in the Cosmos.
The recovery of literacy may be the most crucial ingredient in the transformation of our culture. I don’t know how it might come about, but certainly books will play an essential part; books in whatever form (though, of course, I prefer the tangible tactile experience of a real book). It will be necessary to re-learn how to immerse ourselves in reading, to gain the skill of following an idea or a story into its depths instead of continuing to skim along the surface; and to make our choices from this depth instead of from our instantly hooked fears and prejudices.
Ah well, I’m getting old and will certainly not witness the revolution. But I can’t help continuing to scatter what seeds remain in the knapsack of my spirit. Perhaps one or two might someday sprout and provide some little nurture to those who inhabit a new Earth and a new Society.