Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Literacy and Underwear

Apparently, wearing underwear led to an increase in literacy. The commenters on that post point out that this is not a particularly new claim, even if they have to cite Barbara Tuchman's book on the Black Death. It seems rather silly, all-in-all, but I guess there might be a kernel of truth there somewhere. At the very least, it's an interesting story to tell undergraduates...

Anyway, there is a interesting argument there though. Which was more influential in the rapid increase in books and hence, the argument goes, the rise in literacy: the press or the paper -- the chicken or the egg, if you will? Personally, I don't think you can really chalk this all up to technological innovation/ development, since you have to get people to want to read first. Creating a society that values the written word is a much larger step. There's a great story about your friend and mine (and Jeff's), Charlemagne, who tried to learn to write, even keeping tablets under his pillow to practice before bed, but never could master it. Well, probably a lot of that is simply because he didn't need to. Now, fast forward to the 14th century, and you have all sorts of reasons to be able to read and write -- managing your books if you're a merchant, keeping records of your property if you're a landowner, etc.

So, my question is, what kind of literacy is relevant today? I mean, what do you need to know to be literate in today's society. Is it still books? I don't think so. What about computers or TV? Apparently, to be an academic, you need to watch South Park (even though I don't -- I prefer The Family Guy). Is that the key? How would you recommend something of (the good parts of) our culture?

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Matthew, I've been pondering this same comparison of Carolingian and modern approaches to literacy while preparing for a lecture I'm giving to a group of writing teachers later this month. I'm struck by the consistency and confidence with which diverse Carolingians were able to articulate the purpose of their literacy program. I'm not sure that modern teachers of subjects derived from the trivium enjoy a similar sense of shared purpose. Ask them why literacy is important and you'll receive a wide range of highly personalized answers, including the wonders of personal enlightenment, the prospect of better employment, and the need for an educated citizenry in a republic. That's not to denigrate us moderns, of course; it's just enjoyable to imagine that the Carolingians might be bemused to hear us asking such questions in the first place.