Literacy is everything

Literacy is everything – creative controversy

William Z. Lidicker, Jr.

In keeping with the policy of the Humanist to accommodate the diverse cultural, social, political, and philosophical viewpoints of its readers, this occasional feature allows for the expression of alternative, dissenting, or opposing views on issues previously broached within these pages.

Gregory Shafer, in his controversial article “What’s Literacy Got to Do with It?” in the September/October 2002 Humanist, gives us a caricature of the American educational system. But like all good caricatures it contains some basis in reality. He questions our generally accepted faith that education is good for us and suggests that it is “the engine that stultifies change and hinders revolt.” So instead of liberating people to pursue better lives, it actually controls and manipulates them; in short, it is a device of “domestication.” He implies that no education is preferable to education in a system that is politically and religiously controlled to maintain the status quo. Only at the very end of his essay does he raise the possibility that education may in fact embrace “real diversity” and the intellectual growth of the populace. No where does he acknowledge that education also serves to transfer to the young the knowledge that humanity has accumulated over the ages.

Few would deny that the education system in the United States is in great need of repair and that it has failed its people badly in many parts of the country. Nevertheless, Shafer’s view of education doesn’t mesh with my own preuniversity public school experiences (in four states), nor is it consistent with public universities being centers of radicalism and intellectual discussion. More importantly, Shafer’s perspective misses the wider and more realistic context that speaks to the overarching importance of public education.

All social animals have an inherent conflict between the needs and aspirations of the individual and the requirements for maintaining the society that makes individual survival possible. Societies that err on the side of too much conformity lose the ability to innovate and adapt to changing conditions and, hence, they eventually fail. Those that err on the side of too much individual freedom risk the dissolution of that society and ultimately lose the individuals that comprise it. Organisms become social when group living confers important advantages for the individual members. Such advantages can be the acquisition of food, protection from predators, conflicts over resources with neighboring groups or with other species, collective raising and education of young, and division of labor leading to increased efficiency and higher standards of living. Additional benefits are enhanced mate finding and availability of choices, care of old and temporarily incapacitated individuals, and collective environmental modifications such as extensive burrow systems, dams, and growing of crops.

In modern human societies, democratic political machinery seems clearly to be the best way to achieve the optimal balance between conformity and individuality. Effective democratic participation requires that individuals not only feel they are part of the society that sustains them but that they understand the social, economic, and technical issues being discussed, which brings us back to education. Group education is an imperative for any complex society, and this is especially the case when cultural complexity transcends the experiences and knowledge of single adults. How many Americans could build a TV set or computer from scratch? Lack of education isn’t an option if a human population is to be successful. However, educational systems have the power to suppress individual initiative and diversity, as Shafer emphasizes, or to encourage them.

The key to success is the generation of a sense of community (conformity) while simultaneously encouraging individuality within that context. Education can work on behalf of that social balance. Multi lingualism and cultural diversity can be viewed as positive values within a larger more encompassing and nourishing community. A community dynamic that incorporates and even celebrates diversity can have a stronger emotional cohesiveness than one that simply wallows in conformity. Perhaps this is our evolutionary heritage from being the descendants of societies that were sufficiently innovative to successfully adapt to changing circumstances.

This brings us to Shafer’s question: “What’s Literacy Got to Do with It?” The answer is everything. In a society such as ours, where one-on-one verbal transmission of knowledge can’t possibly maintain much less improve our complex culture, illiteracy is the route to social disintegration. For any society to function successfully, members must be able to communicate with each other effectively. This isn’t incompatible with multiculturalism or multilingualism. Most of us are multicultural anyway in that we are members of multiple social groups such as neighborhoods, job or professional societies, hobby groups, towns, cities, states, nations, or international societies. Each group to which we belong may require different behaviors and different communication skills. Illiteracy and its companion ignorance make these multiple associations and this diversity less likely, not more.

Furthermore, it isn’t just literacy but scientific literacy that will be critical for the preservation of democratic governments in the twenty-first century, as pointed out by J. D. Miller’s 2002 Federation of American Scientists Public Interest Report. “Civic scientific literacy” is what he calls the level of understanding of science and technology needed to function as citizens in a modern industrial society. As of 1999 only 17 percent of American adults qualified for this minimal level of understanding.

Ignorance encourages antagonism, misunderstanding, competition, and violence. In short ignorance is incompatible with modern civilization and in a larger sense incompatible with social living generally. If ignorance leads individuals to lose their sense of belonging to the society that sustains them, it will generate not independence but parasitic dependence (welfare) or predatory (criminal) lifestyles and, if widespread, will precipitate the disintegration of that society. If on the other hand education leads individuals to lose their identification with their society, they can work to change that society or they can leave it. If such discontented people work for change through democratic processes, any changes adopted are likely to be beneficial and sustaining. If instead they use tyrannical methods to effect change, the resulting society will require total conformity (repression) and can’t succeed in the long run as a democracy and, therefore, won’t be adaptive.

One other important thing about this optimal balance between conformity and individuality is that it will vary with circumstances that the society experiences. If a society is threatened by subsistence living conditions, outside threats, or substantial internal dissent, it will move the balance toward greater conformity and hence improved chances of short-term success. On the other hand, societies managing a higher standard of living, maintaining good relations with neighbors, and exercising democratic politics will encourage individual innovation and diversity and be blessed with cultural flowering and better long-term prospects. There may in fact be a threshold such that if a society moves too far toward conformity and the autocratic government that is needed to sustain it, there can be no return back to democracy without a violent revolution. Even this revolution may be unsuccessful if the citizenry has lost its democratic traditions for a sufficiently long period so that there is no longer the knowledge and skills needed to rebuild them.

This is where Shafer’s warning about conformity and domestication can be evaluated relative to the modern U.S. society. The social balance point in this country is shifting strongly toward conformity. This is supported by the current shift toward far right politics, the corresponding grotesque inequities in wealth, the government’s intensification in spying on citizens, and the increased alienation of our citizens from democratic processes (witness the low voter turnout in the last election). This shift is caused by increasing difficulties in maintaining the economic status quo as well as real, imagined, or contrived threats from the outside.

As our democracy erodes, so too will our abilities to deal effectively with the real problems of economic inequity and deterioration of our life support system on this planet. Under the circumstances, we can predict that population pressures, with its concordant decline in the quality of life and increasing competition for inadequate resources, will bring about a world trend toward more tyranny and the violence that accompanies it. This need not be our’ fate. Education could help to slow or reverse this trend; illiteracy and ignorance won’t.

William Z. Lidicker Jr. is a professor of integrative biology and curator of mammals emeritus for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests are in ecology, population biology, social behavior, evolution, and conservation biology; he has published extensively on all of these topics.

editor’s note

Does public education create division among the classes of society and control individuals both politically and religiously to maintain the status quo? William Z. Lidicker Jr. argues shared education and literacy are essential within our modern civilization and that without it individuals couldn’t maintain society.

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