How Literacy Has Made the World a Better Place (And Can Again)

In O'Pinions, Off-Topic on June 19, 2013 at 9:08 pm


I was clicking through YouTube last week, procrastinating (that’s redundant, right?), when somehow my eye strayed from the cat videos long enough to be caught by some slightly more serious videos featuring John Cleese and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They weren’t in the videos together, mind you, but they were discussing some of the same things: how religion, when followed too rigidly and taken too literally, can become a danger to scientific progress and society as a whole.

Specifically, John (we’re on a first name basis, you know) had this to say:

“I think that the central problem of any religion is that the founders of religions are always extraordinarily intelligent people, and what you notice as you get older is extraordinarily intelligent people are not literal minded. And the great problem of religion is when what is said by the founder of the religion, which is supposed to be taken metaphorically, is taken literally.”

What occurred to me is that religious texts—whether the Bible, the Quran or the Bhagavad-Gita—are texts like any other, containing concepts that require a certain level of literacy to fully understand. Specifically, they require a level of literacy that allows a reader to think abstractly about the concepts set forth therein; they require an ability to understand metaphor. Religious fundamentalism, then—and in particular the brand of religious fundamentalism that makes mortal enemies of those who believe something different—springs, at heart, from a misunderstanding of metaphor.

The Numbers Don’t Lie. I did some research, and the first bit of evidence I found was pretty convincing: The literacy rate in Afghanistan, the birthplace of Al Qaeda, is only 34% (and a staggering 18% among women). It struck me that this was no coincidence.

In fact, it turns out the world’s most violent and unstable countries generally lie well below the world average 85% literacy rate: Somalia (37%), Pakistan (57%), Nigeria (61%), Yemen (63%), The DRC (66%), Iraq (78%)—the list goes on. And while there are myriad other factors at work in all of these places, from a lack of socioeconomic development, to the collapse of governments, to the perhaps unwise intervention of foreign powers, the literacy rates are hard to ignore. What’s more, these numbers only measure the most basic level of literacy; the percentage of the population that reads at the college level is drastically lower in each of these countries. Even in the United States, where the nominal literacy rate is 99%, only an estimated 15 percent of the population reads at the undergraduate level.

So what am I saying? I’m saying that this needs to change, and if it does, the world will be a vastly better place. I’m saying that advances in science, innovation, philosophy and human rights can always be linked, at least in part, to increases in literacy. Hell, language itself got its start (depending on who you ask) about two million years ago with one of our earliest ancestors—Homo erectus or Homo habilis—right around the same time they invented a little thing called fire. Maybe this is just a correlation and doesn’t imply causation, but it’s a pretty significant correlation nonetheless. Language, literacy, and progress are linked.

But the converse is also true: The erosion of progress, the collapse of societies and the degradation of human rights tends to be associated with periods of decreased literacy, or the outright repudiation of it. At the fall of the Roman Empire, as Latin scholarship and education waned and the church turned from the study of texts to the exultation of God through music and spoken word, the Dark Ages and a shadow of lawless stagnation fell across Europe. As Neil points out in his video above, the center of scholarship moved East in this period, to Baghdad, until the 12th Century when Imam Hamid al-Ghazali rejected scientific thinking, and the intellectual foundation of that society was destroyed as well.

It would take the printing press, the mass production of books and—yes—the spread of literacy to pull Europe out of its slump. Not coincidentally, this happened around the same time as the Reformation, and the translation of church texts into the vernacular, which thus encouraged a more immediate (you might even say more literary) understanding of those texts.

Fast forward to the present, where we revisit a troubling scenario: Low literacy rates contributing to violence and rigid ideology in portions of the developing world, and the decline of advanced literacy even in the world’s developed countries.

What needs to be done should be pretty clear: Nations and nonprofits need to work to increase the number of literate individuals in the world—and, just as crucially, to increase the quality of that literacy, to enable more abstract thinking and a better understanding of metaphor. This would directly reduce the rigid interpretation of religious concepts, reduce the incidence of intolerant ideologies in general, and thus create a more peaceful, empathetic, progressive and scientifically productive world.

It won’t solve all the problems right away—sometimes literate people are the most rigid and ideological of them all (even going so far as to write obnoxiously long blog posts about how YouTube, of all things, reminds them how great literacy is)—but it will be a start.

(Map via Wikipedia. Source: UN Human Development Report)

Further Reading:
World Literacy Map
Abstract vs. Concrete Thinking
Literacy Rates by Country
Literacy in the United States

  1. we also lose a cultural literacy of shared values, like freedom, honor, independence – replaced by Steinfeld or whatever else is in vogue.

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