The Dangers of Literacy:
Has Democracy Debased Culture?
MASS literacy is a new phenomenon in the history of civilization, and it is no surprise that thoughtful people find its effects disturbing. When ability to read no longer guarantees participation in a living intellectual tradition, when a generalized Inotion of “culture” has a prestige far wider than the spread of any proper training in the patterns of thinking and feeling, then the way is open for every kind of charlatanism, pedantry, educational self-kidding, muddle-headed pretentiousness, and plausible cant. Jacques Barzun provides rich documentation of all this in a book* by whose examples few sensible readers will not be shaken and whose anxieties most will share, but about whose arguments many will have mixed feelings.
The symptoms of our modern ailment- which is not exclusively American but one which afflicts our whole Western civilization-are not difficult to describe, whether they are graduate students in history who burble sophisticatedly about Hegel without knowing the meaning of some of the simplest words in the English language or even the precise meaning of s.c. and A.D., or the behavior of the large American foundations in endowing “projects” conceived in grandiosely woolly terms and described in polysyllabic doubletalk. Diagnosis, however, is
more difficult. What exactly has gone wrong, and how? And what is the proper cure? Mr. Barzun, whose chief zest is demonstrated when he describes the symptoms, has his own answers to the first two of these questions. About the cure he has little if anything to say, at least directly, though certain kinds of treatment seem to be implied in the way he conducts his diagnosis.
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