How we define modern literacy

Jul 16, 2015 by

Ron Isaac

Ron Isaac

Back in Shakespeare’s time, the Elizabethan Age, the population of England was a small fraction of what it is today.  It’s only a modest exaggeration to say it had fewer inhabitants than there are security cameras in present-day London.

When Queen Elizabeth I ruled England, William Shakespeare ruled the English language. He and a few other geniuses, like the translators of the King James Bible, imprinted their creativity on their era and defined it forever. When we think of that period, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet come to mind.

What most people don’t realize, and what looking back over the centuries now strikes us as irrelevant, is that the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare’s contemporaries couldn’t read or write. To no fault of their own, the masses were illiterate.

The same general truth applies to 21st century America. The scenery and the creative specialty have changed. So which figures are imprinting their creativity on the present age?

Instead of literary giants like Shakespeare and Donne we have technological and entrepreneurial wizards. The brain-parents of Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are the heirs to the authors of Macbeth and Death Be Not Proud. They are the Bards of Apps, hand-held devices and the “information highway.”

We who happen to be alive during this time will in pathetic anonymity be associated with this new age just by virtue of our being contemporaries of it. Like the masses of Shakespeare’s time.

But the world today is a much more complex and dangerous place. And it is practically asking for spiritual annihilation to allow a tiny number of people to define us culturally and psychically. We cannot be human props. We cannot be “extras” in the playing- out of the human drama on the world’s stage.

We cannot sit impassively as they shape things in our name. We cannot define modern literacy by our fluency as binge-consumers ( of ideas as well as products) alone.

We can’t surrender our sentient individuality to a  handful of economists, politicians, executives and scientists to define our age for us, brilliant as they may be.  It mustn’t be left to them alone to register our era’s legacy on the tablets of history.

If “ordinary” people are to be remembered by what they have made memorable about the times they lived through, then they’d better contribute something!  It’s not enough to proclaim “I made a difference!”.

The illiterates of Shakespeare’s time didn’t know any better. There had been no precedent anywhere in the world for an institutional role for individual thought and responsibility. Everyone was  manacled by a class system that supposedly we have overcome.

But do we have the means and the theoretical wisdom to appreciate the virtue of fully educating all people. The class system may have kept Shakespeare’s 16th century multitudes ignorant, but what is our excuse today?

During this epoch of Smart Phones and commercial drones, many of our high school and college graduates are just as unskilled and inept in relation to the total knowledge available to their generation as were the illiterate Shakespeare contemporaries to the body of information already known then.

And what is worse, they are clueless that they are clueless as the world passes them by.Who is gaining by this state of affairs? ( Conspiracy theorists need not apply)  Who has engineered this hijacking of the capacity for independent judgment?  By whose design?

As measured by conventional tests, we don’t have a problem of mass illiteracy. But in a broader sense, the illiterates of today, though school-processed, have been reduced to consumerist goons and clones. What will be the immediate word association when future folks are asked about our current generations?

And whose fault will that be?

Do our students know how to think for themselves?  Do they want to know? Are they aware that something is missing? Do they realize someone else is pulling the strings of their sensibilities and values them solely for their collective purchasing power? Have they acquiesced to ignorance and those who have a vested interest in exploiting it?  Are they themselves culpable in some way?

Teaching kids is the highest form of evangelism.  The bureaucrats, politicians, ideologues and pundits, especially those hitched to education, are the purveyors and profiteers of illiteracy. Teachers should be revered above all the inventors, discoverers, explorers and entrepreneurs. Because despite the rapid acceleration of knowledge, it is ruinous progress unless there is an exponential boost in the percentage of souls who can participate in it meaningfully.

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