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Critical Thinking and the Persistent Story

In my last post, I discussed some of the reasons that I think we have probably passed the point of “peak literacy” in the regions formerly known as the Western world. This drew a very thoughtful response from my good friend and colleague Christopher Cocchiarella at Mindful Media Musing. In that post, he does an excellent job of describing in more detail the various levels of functional literacy and of collecting the statistics to show that shockingly low percentages of the US population exceed “basic” and “intermediate”. In identifying why he feels this is such a problem, however, he makes what I think is an interesting association, writing that “If we don’t have individuals with mathematical knowledge, creative reading and writing skills, critical thinking habits, etc., then we won’t have functioning businesses, governments, or communities.”

My first instinct is to object that, for most of human history, most of the human population lacked “creative reading and writing skills”, while building and maintaining businesses, governments, and communities that functioned as well, and often better, than ours. The Aztecs, for instance (while possessing a kind of mnemonic symbology) lacked a true writing system, which did not prevent them from articulating a theological and philosophical system as sophisticated as those found anywhere else in the world, governing most of central Mexico efficiently for over two centuries, or cultivating the arts with a magnificently rich tradition of theatre and poetry, generated from extensive musical conservatories in flourishing cities like Texcoco, which were themselves adorned with stone temples carefully aligned to the stars and served by sanitation systems the likes of which Europe would not equal until some four centuries after the fall of Tenochtitlan. The Incans lacked any kind of writing system altogether, and yet maintained an effective bureaucracy across hundreds of miles of the world’s most impassable terrain, fitted masonry with a precision unduplicated by any modern tools short of laser cutting, and performed successful brain surgery.

Writing, then, appears to be an adornment of higher culture, and not a prerequisite for it. Equally as astonishing as the number of places in which sophisticated civilizations have arisen in its entire absence, are the number of cases in which a writing system was developed, but used only for receipts, property markers, and/or divination for centuries. The runes were used for such purposes in Scandinavia for hundreds of years without giving rise to any body of written literature as we understand it. The same is true of the ogham in Ireland. Even societies which developed writing, then, often perceived it to be of no real advantage to them beyond a small number of tasks that fall squarely within the province of “basic” functional literacy. There are a variety of interesting reasons societies might take this view, and without rehearsing them all here I will refer you, dear reader, to an interesting analysis of Plato’s criticism of the art of writing as a nuisance to society.

One could certainly object to the historical examples I have given on the basis that the society we live in is much larger in scale than the ones mentioned, and dependent on more complex technical processes for its maintenance. One could even, perhaps, riposte Plato on the grounds that modern communications technology ends around some of his objections (as the author of Apartment 46, in fact, attempts to do). What is harder to do is to formulate a basis for the claim, more often assumed than repeated in modern discourse, that advanced reading and writing skills are a concomitant of “critical thinking habits”, or other important cognitive skills. Whether or not our society places greater demands on societal communication and coordination than those placed on the Aztecs or the runic Norse, there simply aren’t higher levels of critical thinking or cognitive ability to be achieved than those at which they had already arrived; the deepest thinkers among them were already operating at peak human capacity in this regard.

There appears to me, then, to be no positive correlation between literacy, functional or otherwise, and the cognitive skills we undoubtedly wish to see developed in our students and citizens. It does appear to me, however, that there may be several negative ones. Plato has already covered the issue of the atrophy of memory (which, as those familiar with the medieval ars memoria will recognize, has implications much deeper than simply impairing information recall), as well as the growing superficiality of the society’s understanding of what constitutes knowledge (as the category itself becomes truncated to what is transmissible as text). A point which Plato does not touch upon, however, but which is highly relevant to our society, is information overload.

I pass you for a moment, dear reader, to the American journalist Albert Nock, writing in 1934:

I spent some time last year in Portugal, where the status of literacy and the conditions of the book-market are about what they were in Mr. Jefferson’s America. One saw very little “popular literature” on sale, but an astonishingly large assortment of the better kind. I made my observations at the right moment, apparently, because, like all good modern republicans, the Portuguese have lately become infected with Mr. Jefferson’s ideas about literacy, and are trying to have everybody taught to read and write; and it interested me to see that they are setting about this quite in our own incurious, hand-over-head fashion, without betraying the faintest notion that anything like a natural law may be a factor in the situation.

What is this “natural law” to which Mr. Nock alludes? It is a form of Gresham’s Law, which essentially states that if two different transactional commodities are established as having the same de jure value, then the one possessing greater de facto value will disappear from circulation—i.e. “bad money drives out good”. Nock’s insight was that this occurs with cultural commodities as well:

The development of the gramophone and the radio has encouraged the notion that by keeping a great deal of poor music in circulation one creates a larger demand for good music and helps a taste for good music to prevail. But we are discovering that things do not go that way; and the reason is that a “natural law” is moving them in a direction exactly opposite.

In precisely the same way, the expansion of literacy to a large portion of the population has flooded our literary markets with low-value consumer output designed to satiate the most basic of demands at the most profitable price with the highest possible product turnover. This was true even when literacy rates were still relatively low; Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a scathing indictment of the incipient beginnings of this “popular literature” at the beginning of the modern period, and any seventeenth-century romance Cervantes had at hand to criticize would be found a literary masterpiece when examined next to Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.

This, of course, is not to say that great works of literature have not been produced over the last four hundred years; they certainly have. It is to suggest that they have been a small fraction of the overall output, but it is even more to point out that, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Little Prince, we now have some six thousand years of enduring masterpieces amounting to vastly more literature than any human being could hope to read in a lifetime, and yet we continue to produce more than 2.2 million new books every year. The result is that the canon of great literature is diluted to a smaller and smaller fraction of available printed material and is significantly less promoted by publishers than untested new titles with higher profit margins. Vast and priceless portions of the cultural heritage of humanity never manage to fight their way through this torrent to get into our young (and old) readers’ hands.

The resulting problem, however, is not simply that my students are reading The Hunger Games instead of the The Tale of Genji. The problem is that they are reading The Hunger Games instead of reading Anne of Green Gables for a second time. Through most of history, most people were exposed to a relatively small number of stories repeatedly throughout their lives. The same stories from Scripture, the same folk tales, the same traditional ballads would be returned to, in varying forms (from books, to tellings by the fire, to dramatic performances, to depictions in stained glass), many thousands of times through the course of an individual’s life, perpetually revisited in light of new experiences, new stages of personal growth, and new understandings of the world. It was this persistent engagement with stories that became deeply internalized (*pauses for quick nod to Plato on the importance of memory*) that produced real growth in understanding and what we now call “critical thinking”. Cursory acquaintance with large numbers of stories visited once, or even twice, only to be discarded in favor of some new release does not achieve this same end.

Thus we fall victim, as a society, to a kind of “literacy inflation”, in which the overall value of the skill of reading decreases as it is extended to more and more people, both because the skill is less rare in purely economic terms, but more importantly because its democratization gives rise to an industry of cheap mass-produced literature that crowds more substantive offerings out of the marketplace and inhibits re-exposure to time-tested material, thus decreasing the actual value both of the reading and of what is being read. At the heart of our educational system, in English classrooms where curricula are now designed around whatever YA titles the big publishing houses are pushing that year, we have created the literary equivalent of a food desert, and begging our children to read by stuffing them full of whatever drivel they are willing to consume has put us in the position of a mother so desperate to get a fussy toddler to eat anything at all that she lets Twinkies pass for dinner. Mindless escapism does not cease to be escapism just because we print it on a page instead of projecting it on a screen.

There is tremendous value in reading, but it is value which, today as in all prior ages, only a minority are really willing or able to capitalize upon. For the majority of our students, and of the population as a whole, “basic” and “intermediate” functional literacy suffice for their purposes, and the attempt to raise their level further, whether by simple coercion or by pablum incentive, probably does more harm than good. If we are interested in seeing them develop real critical thinking skills and real gains in cognitive ability, let us stop forcing their noses back down into mostly second-rate books and instead find ways to get them out into nature, to get them out onto a worksite, or just to get them out into the marketplace, interacting with real people in real situations. If the learning to be done in those settings was good enough for Aztec poets and Incan brain surgeons, I dare say it is good enough for most of us.