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Literacy — What is it Good For?


 Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges (1891)Blades, William: Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges (1891)Literacy is good, illiteracy is bad. Literacy is the foundation of civilization and culture. Who doubts it? History, however, tells another story. The Incas, for example, were not literate, yet had a sophisticated culture.1 Instead of writing, they used a system of knotted cords called quipus to store information and send messages. When literacy came to the Greeks, it did not create a culture, rather, it put into writing a pre-existing culture. The main aspects of classical Greek culture — its architecture and poetry (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were originally oral compositions), political structure, and the polis — all existed before the Greeks could read or write.2

For the classicist Eric Havelock, this shows that culture does not require literacy. What makes culture possible is the ability to store and transmit information. Without writing, oral cultures make information rhythmic or cast in the form of a story so it can be remembered and passed on to future generations. For example, "Red sky in morning, sailors taken warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight." When speech can be written down the need to structure all thought in a rhythmic or narrative form disappears.

Even in ancient Greece, whose literary achievements form the foundation of western civilization, the spoken word was given priority over the written word. "[M]ost Greek literature was meant to be heard or even sung... and there was a strong current of distaste for the written word even among the highly literate... the art of speaking was a major part of Greek education... A civilized man in Greece... had to be able, above all, to speak well in public."3

The Greeks' ambivalence towards the written word can be seen in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus. There Socrates recounts the Egyptian myth about the origin of writing. The Egyptian god, Theuth, offers writing as a gift to the Egyptian king of Thebes, saying "it will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories." But the king is skeptical and says, "If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks."4 In this story, Socrates uses the Greek word pharmakon as a metaphor for writing. Pharmakon has a double meaning, it can mean either medicine or remedy, or it can mean poison.

Is Literacy Liberating?

But isn't literacy supposed to be liberating? For Levi Strauss, "the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings... "5 This was certainly the case in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where writing was used to increase state control through the creation of inventories, the census, and tax rolls. (The point of counting people and property in a census is for taxation.)

But didn't literacy free people from an unthinking allegiance to authority and tradition? It can do that, but traditionally literacy has been used to uphold authority and preserve tradition. The expansion of literacy undertaken by the Puritans in 17th century New England was conservative in intent. Literacy meant reading the Bible and devotional works. It was only when reading expanded beyond this narrow range that a new liberating literacy emerged.6

By the mid-19th century, in Europe and America, literacy became seen as a way to combat crime and disorder. Literacy, it was believed, would promote moral values and induce self-restraint in the poor. It was considered an enlightened way of controlling the lower classes, of making them more like the middle class.7 Before this period, educating the poor was considered unnecessary and dangerous.

Today there is a great fear of declining literacy rates, because literacy has become equated with civilization or culture. But this identification is modern. The Greeks had no term for literate or illiterate. "They spoke only of men who were musical or unmusical, educated or uneducated, and with good reason. It was sensed that literacy and culture were not necessarily synonymous."8

The Uses of Literacy

Literacy has been put to countless uses. It has promoted rationality, but it has also been used for magic. Words and letters have frequently been treated as having mysterious powers that can cure illnesses, as well as invoke curses. When literacy arrived in Tibet, Buddhist monks used it to print prayers on water. In Somalia, passages from the Koran are written out, washed into water, and then drunk as a medical remedy.9 Even in ancient Greece, writing was used for magical purposes, as is evidenced by their use of lead curse tablets — small sheets of lead with curses and spells inscribed on them that were common in Athens during the classical period — which are considered the high point of Greek rationality.

What is Literacy?

What exactly is literacy? Today we define it as the ability to read and write, but this connection is modern. With our pens and keypads, writing is effortless. But traditionally, writing was taught separately from reading, in part, because of the difficulty of using traditional writing instruments. In Greece and Rome, authors did not write, instead dictating their books and letters to scribes. "In the Middle Ages, it was mainly scribes and monks who wrote; in 16th-century England many quite educated people could only read, not write, and it was common to go to a specialist writer, a scrivener or secretary, if you need something written."10 And if you couldn't read Latin, you were considered illiterate even if you could read in your vernacular language.11

If we define literacy as the ability to read and write, then we would have to consider Homer, whom Plato called the educator of Greece, illiterate, for he almost certainly couldn't read or write. (The absence of reading and writing in pre-literate societies — Homeric society for instance — should not be confused with illiteracy in modern societies.) This definition also leaves unanswered the level of reading and writing that is considered necessary to be literate. Are you literate if you can read the New York Post? Shakespeare? Does the ability to write mean being able to fill out a form or write an essay? There are also different writing systems, each requiring different reading skills. A modern reader, for instance, would have a tough time reading a text where there is no space between words and no punctuation, as was the case in ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, and post classical Latin writing. An example is the image on the right that shows the law code of Gortyn, Crete. It is supposed that such texts, to be intelligible, had to be read aloud in order to determine where one word ended and another began, just as a musical score is unintelligible to most people unless it is played.

Literacy has acquired so many meanings that many scholars believe that a single universal definition of literacy is impossible. It might be simpler to talk of literacies rather than literacy. And in fact, we do talk of many types of literacies, e.g. social literacy, cultural literacy, functional literacy, computer literacy, and visual literacy, to name but a few.

If we are ever to understand literacy it is necessary to stop treating it as something obvious and commonplace. It is also necessary to understand its history. As reading and writing were done differently in the past, so they will most certainly be performed differently in the future, as the screen rather than the page becomes the home for words. As Todorov writes, "Nothing is more commonplace than the reading experience, and nothing is more unknown. Reading is such a matter of course that at first glance, it seems there is nothing to say about it."12

  1. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy From Antiquity to the Present / Eric A. Havelock
  2. The Coming of Literate Communication to Western Culture
  3. Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece / Rosalind Thomas
  4. Phaedrus; Translated with Introduction and Commentary by R. Hackforth
  5. Tristes Tropiques / Claude Lévi-Strauss; translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman
  6. American Education; The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 by Lawrence A. Cremin
  7. The Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present / Harvey J. Graff
  8. The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences / Eric A. Havelock
  9. Literacy in Traditional Societies, edited by Jack Goody
  10. Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece / Rosalind Thomas
  11. The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe / edited by Rosamond McKitterick
  12. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation / edited by R. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman


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A very interesting, scholarly

A very interesting, scholarly examination of an important issue. Thanks for posting. It seems particularly relevant in an era when real books are disappearing--things like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have splitered our attention spans--and literacy seems the last thing on anyone's mind. Looking forward to your next post. . .

I feel that literacy is not

I feel that literacy is not good and mostly a tool of the idle statistician and the imperialist politician; nevertheless I am like those before us in my thinking for it seems weird and dumb that we should make our speech a slave to writing and the media and those through whom we learn it, rather than making them aware of our mother-taught speech. By thinking of it like that, it becomes more obvious how language is always tied to some religion or some other like thing, whereby rather than thinking for ourselves, we think for those who taught us it. And thus it seems to me that as much was Latin the speech of Western Christendom, as is Standard English that of the pretensions of Capitalism and Modernism.

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