“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
This is a Reading Response to Wendell Berry’s “In Defense of Literacy”
This essay seems to be Berry’s response to the relative prominence that the “practical” fields get over the languages in the current education system.
Berry initially highlights the apparent absurdity of a defense for literacy in a society where almost everyone goes to school but the widespread prominence of “published illiteracies of the certified educated” makes it necessary.
Berry is mortified by the fact that languages in the modern education system are only taught as “ornaments.” As a necessity for learning other more “practical” fields and not for their own sake. He laments the fact that while a language is taught in school, linguistic literacy is not. To elaborate, students are only expected to know a language to the extent that it will help them learn a skill that will help them get a job but are not required to be well read or have good writing skills.
This lack of knowledge about the intricacies of knowledge leaves large gaps for miscommunication. As Berry points out, while this approach helps in the short run, it is destructive in the long run as it will lead to a disintegration of society and culture.
Berry’s argument has larger implications. It doesn’t just apply to the study of languages but to knowledge as a whole as any piece of knowledge that is of no use to large corporations and does not lead to “mass production of consumers and producers” would face the same problems that language is facing now. Donald Trump’s position on the availability of education loans for liberal arts majors is an obvious example of the same.
As Devdutt Pattanaik pointed out in his talk, “Laxmi or Saraswati: The Nation Wants to Know,” in our minds “Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge) exists in the service of Laxmi (the goddess of wealth.)” He goes on to say that one can either be an ambitious student simply learning a skill with the ultimate objective of earning money or a humble student who is curious and wants to learn for its own sake.
(NOTE: The Devdutt Pattanaik talk starts at 1 hour 28 minutes.)
Berry gives a wonderful example of parents who would be mortified by their son refusing to cut his hair but proud of that very same son if he lies as a part of his career choice in order to earn money. This moral double standard does not come from inherent hypocrisy but from a lack of critical thinking skills that can only developed by exposure to good books and culture; the “impractical” aspects of life.
Berry mentions that this focus on practicality may be fine in primitive societies with an inherent oral culture but in the modern society of “prepared public language” it is destructive. While I agree with him on the premise, I disagree with him on the reasons for it. In most primitive cultures with an oral tradition, practical skills are taken care of by parental vocational training or training organizations like dormitories while literacy, as Berry defines it, is passed on by stories belonging to the oral tradition of that culture. Devdutt Pattanaik’s talk is an example of the same.
However, Berry doesn’t just present us with a problem in society but a solution for it as well. He emphasizes the need for a “better language.” One that has all the complexity, beauty and intricacies that language must possess. One that can do justice to the complexity, beauty and intricacies of the world in which we live. One that is articulate and can only be learned by an intimate knowledge of its vast literature and origins.
In my opinion, we need to go back to our primitive origins to achieve mastery over this language that Berry describes. Today, parents are more than happy to hand over their children to educational institutions and not participate in the education process of their children. However, as Devdutt Pattanaik points out, the mother is the very first Saraswati in our lives. The practical aspects of education can be left to schools and colleges but the knowledge of the very nature of life has to be taught at home. As our ancestors did before us, we need to start teaching children how to live at schools but why to live at home.
NOTE: The title is a quote by Carter G. Woodson