Literacy is technically defined as the ability to read and write. However, literacy is a much wider, more complex concept that has existed before the invention of paper. Literacy has to do with communication; effective communication. Literacy is the ability to clearly comprehend what someone else is trying to express and properly articulate one’s own thoughts.
The Origin of Literacy
Wendell Berry feels that in order to know a language that expresses the truth about the world as we see it, “we must know something of the roots and resources of our language.”(1972) The origin of every single language is in its oral tradition and the very first stories of every culture began in the oral tradition. This is also the origin of literacy.
Social transmission was an important goal for elders in traditional societies. It was essential to communicate moral values and cultural norms to the younger generation. However, there were challenges to that. One of the major challenges was that of interest and another was of cultural taboos. Storytelling and myth were effective tools of communicating information that was not necessarily interesting or the discussion of which was tabooed. The inherent symbolism and metonymy of mythological stories made it possible to apply the human condition to the divine in order to make conversations about them possible.
The Institutionalization of Literacy
The institutionalization of literacy and the constant focus of governments on their countries’ literacy rates has led to a trade of quality for quantity. The very definition of literacy has been boiled down to the ability to read and write a simple sentence in any one language. Where once, to be called truly literate, one had to have an intimate knowledge of various languages, classic texts and high culture, and be able to discuss any topic in great depth and with unique insight. Today, the label of “literate” can be given to anyone who is able to read and write regardless of whether that individual can comprehend what ze reads or properly express what ze is trying to say or understand the full implications of what ze does say.
When Berry moans about the “published illiteracies of the certified educated” (1972), he is not distressed about the ability of an individual to convert symbols on a page to sounds and sounds to symbols but about the inability of most individuals to peel back the surface layer and comprehend the significance of the words themselves. He is distressed about the “lack of a critical consciousness of language”(1972). His concern is not with the fact that a large number of people cannot read but with the fact that many who can read and call themselves “educated” are in fact not literate as they are ill equipped to delve into the intricacies of the language that they read and fully comprehend the implications of what they write.
What leads to Literacy?
True literacy is not about being able to read and write but about the ability to understand, sympathize, empathize and articulate. Literacy can be learned through multiple channels that may or may not include the written word. Some literacy is gained simply through life experience while it can also be gained through vicarious experiences. One of the forms in which literacy can be obtained vicariously is through stories. This is the very first socially institutionalized form of literacy and it predates writing.
One of the most prominent examples of tribal method of transmission of literacy that survives in present day culture is the spoken word and particularly, the oral tradition. While the invention of writing and the subsequent spread of literacy among the masses after Gutenberg has altered the oral tradition immensely, it still strives today. The written tradition and the oral tradition both work together to create the linguistic culture that we follow today.
Reading, Writing and its Relationship to Literacy
The ability to read and write is a skill. Literacy, on the other hand, is a characteristic. In a world full of written communication, the skills of reading and writing expose an individual to a wider range of stories and discourses, expanding their horizons and allowing them to refine their emphatic abilities and learn to slip easily into the mind of a person other than themselves. It provides a different perspective that no other format can provide.
Thus, the ability to understand the written word is a useful skill in developing the characteristic of literacy. In fact, there is room for the argument that literacy is not complete without the ability to interact with the written word but at the same time, that ability does not encompass literacy as a whole.
Literacy in the Oral Tradition
Storytelling emerged as a mode of communicating important information in a form that appealed to children. As Mary Poppins would put it, stories became the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down.
My very first experience of literacy was not in relation to the written word. It was with the stories that my father would tell me every night until the age of seven. He would never read them from a book but recite from the memory of his own parents telling him those very same stories as a child. These were the same stories his grandparents told his parents and so on. In this way, he connected me to over 2000 years of history and continued the process of communicating the accumulated knowledge of that family history to posterity. With every retelling, the story changed. It was infused with the beliefs and values of the person who told it and thus, these stories, despite being thousands of years old, remained relevant in the present day. It allowed each individual to passed down to zir children their own subjective view of the world.
In fact, a contemporary definition of mythology is “a subjective truth communicated through stories, symbols and rituals” according to Devdutt Pattanaik (2016). And it is precisely the language that Berry describes, “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”(1972) These are simple stories and any literate individual can comprehend the meanings in those stories that lie just below the surface whether they can read those very same stories or not.
This does not mean that someone who has not had experience with the oral tradition is not literate. All it means is that they have not been exposed to the one form of literacy, admittedly the original form of literacy. Just as an individual who cannot read but can understand is literate, an individual who hasn’t been exposed to the oral tradition but can comprehend and articulate well is literate.
The Oral Tradition and Academic Writing
What is fascinating about the transition of stories via oral tradition in families is that these stories do not remain static. Instead, they resemble a game of Chinese Whispers. The story that an individual tells their child might resemble but cannot be an exact replica of what their parents told them. An individual is prone to infuse a story with their own values, beliefs and prejudices at a subconscious level as they retell that story. This is because, at the end of the day, the storytelling process is not purely for entertainment. It is intended to be educational; a means of communicating values and beliefs in a manner that is conducive to reception by a young child. This process also serves to make stories initially thought of a long time ago relevant to the present day.
It is interesting to observe how closely the current process of academic writing resembles this process. Harris describes this process as the adoption of various texts and the integration of those texts into one’s own by creatively infusing the new text with ones own thoughts. According to him, “intellectuals need to say something new and say it well…our creativity has its roots in the work of others – in response, reuse and rewriting.”(2006)
The Current Definition of Literacy and How it Affects Us
By reducing literacy to the ability to read and write, we have reduced the potential that our education system can achieve. We do not necessarily need to compromise quality in order to cope with the quantity. In the world of modernity, we can get away with teaching children how to read but completely ignore the essential skills of critical thinking, analysis and skepticism. This has led to a mediocre level of interaction when it comes to social and political discourse among other issues. It has reduced the quality of life and brought upon a feeling of satisfaction with the given while discouraging the habit of challenging the given in favor of a new idea.
The focus of the institutions of education needs to shift from teaching “practical” reading and writing to teaching the slightly “impractical” but ultimately greatly rewarding techniques of comprehension and articulation. (Berry, 1972).
This also needs to extend beyond the classroom. Parents need to encourage critical thinking, skepticism and curiosity. They need to be willing to answer all the questions that a child has from an honest perspective while encouraging the child’s curiosity.
Learning how to read and write is important and must be done. However, it cannot be the society’s benchmark for literacy. Gaining the skills of reading and writing is an important step in becoming literate and once that is achieved, the focus needs to shift to comprehension and articulation.
Berry, Wendell. “In Defense of Literacy.” A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural. N.p.: Harcourt Brase, 1972.
Pattanaik, Devdutt. “Is Hinduism A Religion, A Myth Or Something Else?” Devdutt. N.p., 7 July 2016. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2006. Print.
Mary Poppins. Dir. Robert Stevenson. By Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. Perf. Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, and Glynis Johns. N.p., n.d. Web.