Have you ever wondered why we push reading and writing as skills to teach our kids? Now I know most of you are writers so this is preaching to the choir but because I rant about things on occasion and use this as a venue to get stuff off my chest you’re going to get my take on it.
We hear it a lot “teaching kids to read is important”, “writing is something everyone should do”, “the early kids learn to read the more they will read.”
Okay but why do we want this? On a basic level humanity doesn’t technically need to read or write to survive. It would be hard and a lot of us would die and the population would decrease drastically but if push came to shove the species could survive as hunter gatherers where fire and flint spears are the height of technology. How do I know we can survive? Because we did for countless thousands of years until someone figure out how to plant grains and harvest it.
So what advantage does literacy give us?
To be honest yes we can survive as hunter/gatherers but that’s not exactly the ideal. We’re pretty effective hunters to be honest, but that’s not where our species has it’s advantage. Our advantage has always been, and always will be the story.
There’s the old joke that acting is the second oldest profession and prostitution is the oldest (I dispute that but that’s not for here or there). For acting to be one of the oldest professions, which I think it is, there has to be stories to tell. But why?
One of the things we find in early cultures and societies is evidence of story telling and music. We tell the stories of our peoples, over and over. We put them in form of music, of verse, poetry, stories, whatever. Because stories tell us about who we are and the lessons we have learned as a species. Without the stories we are no better off than a pride of lions or pack of wolves. Our ability to share stories is what lets us learn. We did this first verbally and passed them down through oral tradition. Of course this isn’t effective and anyone who plays telephone knows that messages and stories get garbled after just passing between twenty people in the same room. Now image for a moment passing a story along across thousands of people, over hundreds of miles, over centuries. I think that was the start of our myths. Pieces of forgotten stories passed on and on until we had these mythical beings who well different all seem to follow some various shared traits here and there.
But the important part isn’t the content of the stories, but our ability to share them. Eventually someone figured out that if we assigned symbols to the noises coming out of our mouths and put those symbols on something other people could look at we could share those stories more efficiently and maybe not make as many mistakes in the retellings.
Now mistakes were still made, still are made, but it also opened the way to new concepts and ideas to spread. We could trade, send information across vast distances. Rather than being isolated to tribes and close knit cities we could interact with cultures and people who lived hundreds of miles away from us. It allowed us to trade advancements in science, philosophy, law, war and more, sometimes through dry words of trade, sometimes through grand mythologies and stories.
Being able to read was considered important. So important in fact that the majority of humanity in the history of the world never learned. For a thousand generations only the richest most powerful people were allowed to learn. It was taught to the nobility and the clergy, but the majority of people who did the labor were rarely taught to read or write. This allowed the powerful to maintain power by limiting the access of information spread between the working classes. People were taught how to worship but never allowed to actually read the text that contained what they were suppose believe in.
Now I’m not here to bash someone’s religion or beliefs, but regardless of what you believe for thousands of years those with the power to read and share messages were able to control the majority of the population, from the Assyrians on down through the middle ages. Even in places like Greece and Rome where Western schools of thought will teach that literacy was higher often will neglect to mention this only was a privilege enjoyed by free men or very high class slaves (I know). Not the multitudes of slave laborers, women, lower class citizens, and many others.
This changed with the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration in Europe (I’m going to be real honest I don’t know much about the development of Asia and Africa because joy I was taught in American school systems). With a massive influx of money from trade, being run by merchants who belonged not to the traditional hierarchies of nobility and clergy, this newly formed middle class was able to higher tutors and learn to read and write at first for trade and later for other purposes. The spread of the printing press allowed for more access to books and written items. What once had to be tediously copied down by (priest) hand could now be down en masse at much faster rates.
If you want to look at the causes of the upheavals in society and revolutions that happened in the 18th century, look back to 1440 when Gutenberg made the printing press. Over the course of the next few hundred years writing became almost common place, with many reading and sharing thoughts and stories. The increased education of the population allowed for new thoughts and ideas not just to emerge but to thrive. Suddenly the power of the Church was seriously challenged in Europe for the first time in almost five hundred years since the split between Roman and Orthodox by a monk named Martin Luther who was able to spread his ideas without being isolated to those ideas only being told to those who had a vested interest in preventing that sort of thought from existing.
With philosophers and writers able to write on political affairs and satires of the day criticisms were leveled at monarchs who often could only respond by publishing their own rebuttals through the presses as their critics could hide out in other countries in safety and still get their messages out. It is my belief that this ultimate culmination of the mass communication made possible by the printing press and the spread of literacy came in the 18th centuries with the American, French and Latin American revolutions as political writings reached at zenith and the fiery of new ideas allowed for the creation of new countries, and indeed new forms of government and eventually economies.
It is still within our interest to spread stories. Writings from the beginning of civilization show us that as a species we still share a lot of similarities in 2021 as there was in Uruk. We still struggle with urban (Gilgamesh) and rural (Enkidu) differences, but find we can work together to be more than the sum of our parts and we still seek companionship as Gilgamesh and Enkidu found in each other. Still we seek challenges and adventures in overcoming adversity. We struggle against our ultimate destiny and seek to find that long sought but never found secret to immortality.
Though Gilgamesh never realized it, indeed how could he, he in a way achieved his goal. His is the oldest known story in the world, though it has been changed in many interpretations because writing is still not perfect. The name of Gilgamesh will live for as long as their are humans, even if we don’t always associate him with the story we are telling. Is that not a form of immortality? Does writing not give us a way to speak a thousand generations into the future where other voices are forgotten?
Reading and writing more than any other scientific advancement made gives us our best, our only, defense against that ultimate destiny of all living things, death. No other species that we are aware of has left stories for us to read. No other species has spread philosophical thought or ideas to others of their kind across thousands of miles and millions of years in the same fashion. The ability to read and write is paramount to our success not just as individuals, but as a species.
It is of course impossible for me to go on a rant like this without taking a pound of flesh from those who seem bent preventing people from reading and writing. They do it under the guise of morality, of protecting the sensibilities of children and “good people”. What they are saying is they want to return to a world where only the select few have the ability. Of course maybe they don’t call themselves nobles (often) anymore. But think about why they don’t want people to read things. Now of course there are things you might not want your own kid to read at certain stages of their life. I certainly wouldn’t think it would be a productive use of time to read War and Peace to my nine year old. not because of the sex or violence. It wouldn’t be productive to read it because it would be difficult for a nine year old to comprehend the story and it would be an exercise in frustration that’s he’s not ready for. But maybe there is a nine year old who is ready for it. That’s not for me to judge.
Every time in human history that reading and knowledge has been restricted it has been so as the last defense of the desperate and the depraved in an attempt to cling to power. Fortunately the worst of the offenders have been stopped, but the price has been high, and even now we have book bans and reading bans on certain topics and stories. What are they so afraid of that they want to restrict what might be found as challenging? Go back eight or nine paragraphs. Because when you allow knowledge to spread humanity grows, sometimes through revolution, but only because those who try and restrict knowledge won’t let us grow. Humanity thrives when people are educated and able to read. We fall back when reading is discouraged, when people rely on others to tell them what to think rather than to learn.
The antidote is to write, write everything. Write poetry, write fantasy, write romance, write comedy. Theses are what give us a reason, a will to live. Write on topics you have opinions on, write on scientific thoughts you’ve read and studied. Write philosophy and share it with others so they can think and respond, write history so the generations that come after can know who we are, to know how we stumbled, so they can overcome the mistakes we’ve made and work on new ones of their own. Write because it sticks it too the elitist who refused to not see the value that everyone can offer. Write for those who were denied the right to think for thousands of years.
Write, because you will advance the cause of our species to continue long after we are gone. Write because you will then walk with the immortals, and for a time your name will be remembered. I can think of no two greater causes in humanity then those, all done with power of written word.