To be literate or to be alphabetic is a question that should be posed by any society that sees itself in conflict over just what the society is or should be or where it is going or where it has been, has come from. Being alphabetic, what is sometimes referred to by me as having dexterity with the alphabet, is not in itself literacy. I have said this before, or I am saying this again, depending on which essay you read first. Literacy has to be more, has to be bigger, deeper, more penetrating than what is allowed by alphabetics, by what has ben sponsored in our public education over the last thirty to thirty-five years. It is no irony that education in my estimation has declined since the days of Regan. Obama in the seventies would have been a moderate republican, with no change in his attitudes, his opinions, his thoughts, his rhetoric.
The fact that someone can spell his name cannot be the way we judge if a person is literate or not; we have vitually come to this if we have not yet actually arrived there. It can be a measure of just how alphabetic he is, which is also the assessment of how well someone fills out bureaucratic forms or reads the tabloid press, never meant to do anything but inform–although this informing is just that, putting people unable tot think In Form.
Never the twain, alphabetics and literacy, should meet. They must be kept apart in our appraisal. What I can do with the alphabet is always set against what a monkey cannot do with the alphabet, unless we give a group of them typewriters and infinite time, then, presumably, the monkeys will by accident type out the script of Hamlet. I am still puzzled as to what kind of critique this is, having heard back in grad school this argument on the periphery of critiques of Shakespeare as the center of what had come under attack for being too overtly political and politicized in favor of ruling elites, the Canon of literary achievement. I understand the necessity for Canon revision, or broader inclusion, but never have understood the iconoclastic response, or worse, the same response the mob in Alexandria had with torches at the Library of Alexandria. Not so very different, I had understood; I still understand.
The study of literature is sometimes called the study of Letters, but spelling one’s name correctly is not what I had in mind when I would say someone is literate. yes, you have to be alphabetic in this culture to become literate, but to be literate or to be literary or to read and write literature (the order is happenstance)–these are other than reading tabloid newspapers, other than filling out correctly a deposit slip at the bank.
I am safe in assuming that my to-do list is not what I would call literature, although the aesthetics of this to-do list could be employed in the service of the literary. No? Of course it could. I am not saying that what we understand to be literary forms could only have been fixed by writing. There are a number of what have come to know as literary forms, forms of literature, that were fixed, that lost their plasticity, if they ever had any, in antiquity, in a time before writing, or at the dawn of it when societies like Ancient Greece were residually oral. I do insist, though, that a great deal of re-reading is necessary for any kind of advancement in stages of higher and higher literacy. Also, engaging in writing because no one actually reads at a level considerably higher than the one at which he writes or could write if he engaged in the practice. The same is true and reciprocally so for reading on writing.
We are though mistaken about orality, what it is, where it is, how it functions, when it functioned, and how it stands in contrast to literacy, and how ours is not an oral culture no matter how many songs you listen to or how many Youtube videos you watch to learn something rather than read. We can only become illiterate not non-literate. The possibility of becoming a non-literate culture is virtually impossible.