Is Literacy a Good Thing?

Our culture associates high levels of literacy with intelligence, civilization, and knowledge.  Much of our educational system is devoted to teaching and developing literacy.  We admire people who read quickly and who have read many books.  We scorn those who move their lips when they read.  “Illiterate” is a term of disapprobation that implies many social deficits beyond an inability to decode letters.  And because we believe in progress and corporate slogans such as “continuous improvement,” we imagine that reading will become ever faster and more efficient.  We long for a nearly instantaneous transfer of information from page to brain.

Thus when our students don’t read the texts we give them with ease or interest, when they resist reading Shakespeare or even Young Adult novels, when they appear to want to read nothing longer than a cell phone screen, we declare a literacy crisis.   Perhaps, however, it is we who are mistaken.  Perhaps the form of literacy we practice does not suit the needs of our time, or literacy itself is problematic.  It may be that Plato was right after all.

Plato’s Phaedrus is unlike any other Platonic dialog.  Socrates and Phaedrus are the only participants in the conversation, except for Lysias, who is represented by the text of a speech.  Phaedrus is walking toward the city gates when Socrates encounters him, apparently intending to practice reciting the speech he has just heard by Lysias.  Socrates agrees to accompany him, noting that Phaedrus has the text of the speech hidden in his cloak.  Socrates characterizes the speech as a “charm” to lure him out of the city walls, where he does not usually go.

Jacques Derrida makes much of this “charm” in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” noting that the word translated as “charm” here is “pharmakon,” which can mean either “drug” or “poison,” and is associated with witchcraft and sorcery.   Derrida argues that Plato intends for us to see writing as a pharmakon, a drug which once ingested, alters the body and the mind.  My graduate students, after reading this essay, become cautious, at least for the moment, about what they choose to read.

The Phaedrus is such a strange work that the question of what it is really about is controversial.  It contains three speeches–the written speech by Lysias, and two by Socrates–all about love.  The last speech by Socrates takes us into metaphysical realms of knowledge and truth, and describes the soul as a charioteer attempting to control a winged chariot and two horses, one good, and one bad.  One can argue that the dialog is about the nature of truth, or even about psychology. There are also sections about whether rhetoric is an art, when it persuades to belief rather knowledge.

However, there are many details which point to the problems of writing.  Phaedrus hides the text of Lysias in his cloak.  Later, when giving his first speech, Socrates hides his head under his own cloak.  The rambling, disorganized speech by Lysias begins with the word “listen” and ends by saying “I think I have covered everything, but if you have any questions, just ask.”  One of the main points that Socrates will make is that written texts can’t answer questions.  However, the most important questions about literacy are raised in the myth of Theuth and Thamus, which comes after the last speech.

Theuth has invented many different arts which he demonstrates for Thamus, the king of Egypt. When they come to the art of letters

This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Thamus makes a number of points here. Literacy is not an aid to memory, but a reminder. Written letters are an externalization of thought, no longer within the body or the mind. But the most powerful and disturbing argument is that reading books leads to knowledge of many things without wisdom, without really knowing anything. Plato’s model of learning is a dialog between one who knows with one who does not, the so-called “Socratic” method of question and answer. If texts cannot answer, they cannot teach.

Clearly, Plato is not against literacy. After all, he wrote many dialogs, which continue to provoke fundamental questions today. However, the questions he raises about the role of literacy are not easy to dismiss out of hand. Perhaps we rely too much on literacy. Perhaps there are other ways to learn besides reading many books, becoming “tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato’s Phaedrus translated by Benjamin Jowett

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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4 Responses to Is Literacy a Good Thing?

  1. Victoria Bhavsar says:

    No very wise comment to make here, but I remember a story from People magazine many years ago, in their “Happy” feature: a Black gentleman who was then 100 years old (and looked, heck, no more than 70 in the picture!) had learned to read when he was 90!!! He loved beyond all things to read the Bible verses at his church. At 90, I suspect he’d learned plenty ’nuff elsewise so that literacy did not make him tiresome company. That story really did make me happy; I kept it pinned on my office wall for a long time.

  2. guitarsophist says:

    I think this sort of literacy is wonderful. Every time he reads a bible verse I am sure he has a dialog with it, and that it means something a little different in the context of his life. He wants to know this one book well. What I am questioning is the desire for literacy to be a voiceless stream of information, something to be consumed rather than pondered.

    There is also a whole debate about whether literacy restructures the mind. Walter Ong talks about the world of primary orality, a phenomenological lifeworld very different from the literate civilized in which we live. Some would argue that our own culture is turning into a world that knows of literacy, but does not for the most part practice it, a world Ong calls one of “secondary orality.”


  3. jimsturges says:

    Wow–great post. Enjoyed it very much. I imagine the transition from oral traditions to text was in some ways like our transition from texts to digital media, and elicits some similar fears.

  4. Victoria Bhavsar says:

    I did understand that you were objecting to literacy for the sake of consumption, not for love; it’s just that your post reminded me of that nice story. 🙂

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