Literacy Lost

Editor’s note: This is the second essay in a series by Thomas F. Bertonneau, who teaches literature at SUNY Oswego. The first essay in the series was “Can’t Read, Can’t Watch, Can’t Comprehend.”

Recently at SUNY Oswego, an online conversation burst forth among faculty members about the pandemic reluctance of college students to complete, or even simply to begin, the assigned readings in courses. I refrained from participating because it struck me as an old story. I have been writing about the declining literacy of the young since the 1990s, when I taught in Michigan. I noticed, from my first public utterance on the topic, that it incited terrific hostility from the faculties—especially the writing or composition faculties. They seemed willfully opposed to seeing what I plainly saw—or, if they did see it, they were determined to excuse it by various romantic hypotheses premised on the supposed naïve authenticity of the sub-literate.  
I guess that the breakthrough in faculty perception represents a good development, better than nothing anyway; but it is terrifically belated, perhaps too much so to help us out of the pervasive social crisis of our emerging “post-literate” condition.

In my first article in this series, I wrote about the failure of many of my SUNY Oswego undergraduates to understand the movies with which I supplement the readings in my literature courses. I argued that students who are not readers and who struggle to interpret novels, plays, and poems also struggle to interpret movies. Understanding the relation of cause to effect in film is difficult for people who are not habitual readers. There are reasons why this should be the case. These reasons have to do with the difference between the thinking of habitual readers and the thinking of those whose primary experience of language is with speech rather than the written word or whose thought processes are heavily influenced by images unaffiliated with language, either oral or written.
I argue that we are witnessing a decline of literacy, which will have widespread social effects.
This observation is not peculiar or original to me.  The subject of the decline of literacy has generated a considerable theoretical literature. Among those who have written perceptively on the topic are the late American writer Neil Postman (1931 – 2005) and the French writer Jacques Ellul (1912 – 1994). I take particular interest in Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word (1981; English version 1985). Along with Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1981), to which I will also devote a few comments, Amusing Ourselves and Humiliation helped me to understand what I was witnessing in my classrooms when I started out as a college-level English teacher.

Perhaps Ong provides the best introduction to Postman and Ellul. Father Ong (1912 – 2003), a Jesuit priest, devoted a major portion of his scholarly life to studying the characteristics that differentiate the thinking of literate people from that of pre-literate or non-literate or illiterate people. Most literates casually regard illiterates as naïve, undeveloped versions of themselves, but Ong shows that the mental processes of illiterates—or, as he preferred to say, people whose mental style is that of an oral society—differ entirely from those of literates, even from the cognitive style of people only barely literate.  The mere ABCs can take one a long way. Ong avoided making moral judgments, likely so as not to alienate people who react reflexively against any assertion of hierarchy.  
Here is the gist of Ong’s taxonomy of the oral and the literate:

Orality. In oral societies, all knowledge is personal knowledge; every utterance is subjective and egocentric. Because speech is always connected with specific persons, the idea of objective knowledge apart from an ego remains unknown. Because the ego-element dominates, dialogue in an oral context tends to be aggressive and emotive, “agonistic,” as Ong says, and testy.  In oral societies, thinking must be formulaic; the formulas must be “coded” in simple, easily remembered verbal images—of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety. Questioning the coded veracities is rare, because interrogation might destabilize them, and because they are a matter of social survival; the ethos often forbids questioning. An oral context knows no such thing as “critical thinking.” Indeed, confronted with analytic statements or logical summaries, oral people suspect and reject them, as Ong showed by drawing on anthropological fieldwork.

Literacy. The written word, as Ong remarks, “separates the knower from the known” and in so doing opens up the space of non-ego-centered objective knowledge. Because writing overcomes the ephemeral quality of spoken language and frees the mind from the task of having to remember things through the medium of simple, “coded” images, it also opens up possibilities of reflection, which, with alphabetic literacy in particular, gives rise to the critical discourses, from physics through moral philosophy to history and law. With the aide of a text, the literate subject can “backtrack,” examining the sequence and relatedness of propositions or the logic of a story.  Literacy in this way provides the basis of systematic knowledge in all the higher civilizations. Of course, in introducing the phrase “higher civilizations,” I have made explicit the implication that Ong, for argumentative reasons, de-emphasizes: that the orality-literacy opposition entails a hierarchy.
Neil Postman recognized that hierarchy. In book after book, Postman celebrated the high level of literacy that persisted in American society right through World War Two, but which entered into a steep and accelerating decline in the second half of the century. The singular title, Amusing Ourselves to Death, with its reference to fatal insouciance, already tells much about its author’s thesis in the mid-1980s, which becomes more prescient and unavoidable with every year. It is that the mass media, the forms of “entertainment culture,” even though they are the invention of literates, sapped literacy from their inception, infantilizing the culture, obliterating custom and tradition, and depriving people of history and ideas.

Postman minces no words: “A great metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.” To what “shift” does Postman refer?  He refers to the shift from a “typographic culture,” in which “discourse [is] generally coherent, serious and rational”—to a media culture, dominated by television, in which discourse “has become shriveled and absurd.” Postman’s “typographic culture” is the high literate culture that characterized American civic life in the nineteenth century and that corresponded to what Postman calls the “typographic mind.”
Postman adduces the Lincoln-Douglas debates to indicate the forms of attention of which fully literate people are capable.  He reminds us that these debates, seven in number, were all-day affairs; that the debaters either read from prepared remarks or extemporized on the basis of extensive notes.  They took notes in order to reply to one another.

Although many other things were going on in the debating locales—a carnival-like atmosphere accompanied the main event—most people attended in order to listen to the candidates and evaluate the merits of their contending positions.

The audiences of 1858 could do this largely because their learning was book learning, which inculcates patience and promotes the ability to correlate parts and wholes whether in narrative or argument.  As the professorial conversation alluded to at the beginning of this essay indicates, contemporary college students reject books and disdain reading.  Postman notes that reading imposes radical requirements, some of which are bodily requirements. Thus, to read, one must “remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time.” Of course, “you must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page,” but rather “you must see through them… so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form.”  Finally, “you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity.”  
I am not saying that today’s representative college student absolutely cannot do these things; I am saying that he wishes not to and that his disinclination stems from the fact that reading and writing are for him noticeably alien and difficult. His learning is not book learning. He resembles an oral person, as described by Ong. Subordinate clauses, consequentiality, and logical analysis—these things arouse his suspicion and hostility.  
What has made him this way?

Postman indicts an array of technical non-print innovations: telegraph, photography, motion pictures, sound recording, radio, and television.  He writes, “Together this ensemble of techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.” Not only is it the case, according to Postman, that the peek-a-boo world “is a world without much coherence or sense,” but it is averse to coherence and sense.  In a phrase, “Thinking does not play well on television.”  
Thus the trend of acculturation in a media-intensive, image-based society will run in the direction opposite to the attitudes and behaviors demanded historically by higher education, whose foundations are entirely literate. Postman cites Aldous Huxley and H. G. Wells in worrying that “we are in a race between education and disaster.”

In Technopoly (1992), a follow-up to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argues that averting disaster will require education at all levels to return to a literature-intensive curriculum. He notes that the education establishment is not likely to follow his advice, nor has it.  
A legal scholar, a philosopher, and a theologian, Jacques Ellul brought immense erudition to his analyses of modern culture.  He saw independently almost precisely what Postman saw. Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word addresses an epochal change in modern western society, in which the image triumphs over the word. The results imply a catastrophe for all norms, expectations, and institutions predicated on linguistic competence. Ellul links language sensitivity and literacy to the sense that people have of history and meaning, as rooted in a familiar past; mere images, by contrast, exhibit a mute and static quality, requiring explanation, which only language can give.  
In an observation that Postman would have endorsed, Ellul notes that “there is no possible instantaneous approach to the written page.” To read, one must slacken his pace, eschew the merely practical, and enter the domain of the symbolic.

Ellul extols language, including written language, for its halo of meanings. To language, for Ellul, belong both truth, with the possibilities of falsehood and error, and freedom—for example, the freedom of non-conformity. In contrast, Ellul writes, “Images never reinforce anything but conformity to the dominant doxa.” Literacy threatens conformity because it demands that the subject slow down so as to review the opinionated fixities; literacy invites the subject to approach propositions from a non-literal perspective, to appreciate ambiguities, and to think.

Ellul argues that images dominate the cultural landscape of the recent modern period; he describes the typical creature of that domination as “the image-oriented person.”   Such a person “thirsts for more and more of the images that are so dear to [him].”  Mistaken for reality, images inculcate a false conviction that, having once seen something, one possesses knowledge of it. Perception trumps cognition.  Language becomes a mere caption under the picture; anything in excess of a caption irritates the image-consumer.

When the SUNY Oswego professors began effusively to notice the reluctance of their students to engage with books or to complete reading assignments, they were catching up, after a thirty-year gap, with Postman and Ellul.  Because I have devised ways of making it tough for students to avoid reading, I have had the opportunity to study what reluctant, marginally competent readers, who are in fact image- rather than word-oriented, make of the seriousness, coherency, and paradoxical character of written narrative.  I have detailed what such people make of such things in my series “What, Me Read?”  for the Pope Center. In sum, they discern isolated situations, phrases, and actions, but assemble these into mental wholes quite haphazardly. They express themselves in banalities and stock figures, which often hardly touch the actual topic. As Ellul avers, they emote; they like what they like and recoil from the unfamiliar, especially discourse.
I believe that Postman and Ellul are both right, in their respective commentary. Students deprived of a genuinely literate education fall back by default into a kind of orality.  But these same students, bombarded by a steady stream of wordless images, also exhibit the symptoms of what one might call language-less-ness.  Their orality thus qualifies as less than a full or intact orality.  They are neither fully literate nor fully oral.  They are mutely image-oriented, as Ellul describes that condition.

This stultification affects student cognition in areas outside the realm of the written text. My previous article addressed whether college students are, as some claim, image-culture keen.  I suggested that students make sense of serious movies only about as well as they make sense of novels and non-fiction arguments—that is to say, poorly. In an essay to follow this one, I will detail my attempt, in a “popular culture” course, to jolt students out of their image-dominated mental passivity and provoke them to take an interest in the subtlety and freedom of vaudeville, music hall, and classic English-language film.