In Praise of Illiteracy

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"In Praise of Illiteracy"
By Hans Magnus Enzensberger
This essay was adapted from a talk given by the author and translated from German, which I took from Harper’s Magazine. Can we dispense with the written word? That is the question. Anyone who poses it will have to speak about illiteracy. There’s just one problem: the illiterate is never around when he is the subject of conversation. He simply doesn’t show up; he takes no notice of our assertions; he remains silent. I would therefore like to take up his defense. Every third inhabitant of our planet manages to get by without the art of reading and without the art of writing. This includes roughly 900 million people, and their numbers will certainly increase. The figure is impressive but misleading for Humanity comprises not only the living and the unborn but the dead as well. If they are not forgotten, then the conclusion becomes inevitable that literacy is the exception rather than the rule. It could occur only to us, that is, to a tiny minority of people who read and write, to think of those who don’t as a tiny minority. This notion betrays an ignorance I find insupportable. I envy the illiterate his memory, his capacity for concentration, his cunning, his inventiveness, his tenacity, his sensitive ear. Please don’t imagine that I am speaking not about romantic phantoms but about people I have met. I am far from idealizing them. I also see their narrow horizons, their illusions, their obstinacy, their quaintness. You may ask how it comes about that a writer should take the side of those who cannot read. But it’s obvious! -Because it was illiterates who invented literature. Its elementary forms-from myth to children’s verse, from fairy tale to song, from prayer to riddle-all are older than writing. Without oral tradition, there would be no poetry; without illiterates, no books. "But" you will object, "what about the Enlightenment?" No need to tell me! Social distress rests not only on the ruler’s material advantages but on immaterial privilege as well. It was the great intellectuals of the eighteenth century who discerned this state of affairs. The people had not come of age, they thought, not only because of political oppression and economic exploitation but also because of their lack of knowledge. From these premises, later generations drew the conclusion that the ability to read and write belongs to any existence fit for a human being. However, this suggestive idea underwent a succession of noteworthy reinterpretations in the course of time. In the twinkling of an eye the concept of enlightenment was replaced by the concept of education. "In terms of the education of the populace," according to Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenbergm, a German schoolmaster in Napoleon’s time, "the second half of the eighteenth century marks a new epoch. The knowledge of what was accomplished in this regard is joyous news to any friend of mankind, encouraging to the priests of culture, and highly instructive for the leaders of the commonwealth". As far as the project of literacy goes, we’ve made great strides. Here, it seems, the philanthropists, the priests of culture, and the leaders of the commonwealth have scored triumphantly. By 1880, the illiteracy rate in Germany had fallen below one percent. The rest of the world has also made enormous progress since UNESCO raised its flag in the fight against illiteracy in 1951. In short: Light has conquered darkness. Our joy over the triumph has certain limits. The news is too good to be true. The people did not learn to read and write because they felt like it, but because they were forced to do so. Their emancipation was controlled by disenfranchisement. From then on learning went hand in hand with the state and its agencies: the schools, the army, the legal administration. The goal pursued in making the populace literate had nothing to do with enlightenment. The friends of mankind and the priests of culture, who stood up for the people, were...
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