Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read this text is another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, notes (335):
For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.
Carl Sagan was an advocate for the importance of literacy in science, math, history, English, and other disciplines. Although he was more impressive in defending scientific literacy, his arguments often incorporated the best of the Humanities, from Hippocrates to Epictetus, Samuel Butler to Frederick Douglass. Sagan understood the importance of wise words—spoken or written. The key was books.
From Cosmos: Episode 11, “The Persistence of Memory:”
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Sagan examines the utility of books further in Demon-Haunted World (p. 335-336):
Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate – with the best teachers – the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.
According to Sagan, the love for books is created by a society (or family) that already loves books (337):
If you grow up in a household where there are books, where you are read to, where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins read for their own pleasure, naturally you learn to read. If no one close to you takes joy in reading, where is the evidence that it’s worth the effort? If the quality of education available to you is inadequate, if you’re taught rote memorization rather than how to think, if the content of what you’re first given to read comes from a nearly alien culture, literacy can be a rocky road.
Unfortunately, the art of reading is less valued in American society today. According to the Pew Research Center, “About a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year , whether in print, electronic or audio form.” Adults with a high school degree or less are five times more likely to report not reading books than college graduates. Adults with an income of $30,000 or less are three times less likely to be non-book readers. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the reading of literature (poetry, plays, short stories, and novels) has been in decline since the program began collecting data. In 1982, the literature reading rate was 57%. By 2015, the rate had dropped to 43.1%. (In counterpoint, this study doesn’t count reading required for work or school, nonfiction is totally absent, and the survey is conducted every five years so we’ll have to wait to view the next data point.) Then there’s this.
Both the Pew Center and NEA found that the higher the level of education, the more likely the reader.
Sagan provides several factors for this decline (337):
You have to internalize, so they’re second nature, dozens of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols and punctuation marks; memorize thousands of dumb spellings on a word-by-word basis; and conform to a range of rigid and arbitrary rules of grammar. If you’re preoccupied by the absence of basic family support or dropped into a roiling sea of anger, neglect, exploitation, danger and self-hatred, you might well conclude that reading takes too much work and just isn’t worth the trouble. If you’re repeatedly given the message that you’re too stupid to learn (or, the functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if there’s no one there to contradict it, you might very well buy this pernicious advice. There are always some children – like Frederick Bailey [i.e. Frederick Douglas] – who beat the odds. Too many don’t.
Malnourishment is a factor, too (338):
Recent research shows that many children without enough to eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn (‘cognitive impairment’). Children don’t have to be starving for this to happen. Even mild undernourishment, the kind most common among poor people in America, can do it. This can happen before the baby is born (if the mother isn’t eating enough), in infancy or in childhood. When there isn’t enough food, the body has to decide how to invest the limited foodstuffs available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last. Better to be stupid and alive, it judges, than smart and dead.
This impairment leads to disinterest (338):
Instead of showing an enthusiasm, a zest for learning as most healthy youngsters do, the undernourished child becomes bored, apathetic, unresponsive.
But Sagan’s is not a hopeless world of constricting opportunity. He reminds us that he, too, grew up in poverty. What set his cultivation apart were the values imposed by family—not only for reading, but for wonder, curiosity, and rationality.
Finally, Sagan delivers us a passionate plea for literacy (341-342):
The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin.
Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is severe – the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help solve the dilemmas besetting us.
Sagan makes it very clear. Not only should we read, we must. Literacy is not only an entertaining exercise—it’s education. Through reading, we can acquire the laws of the cosmos and nature—at least, what we theorize those laws to be. We also acquire moral laws by which we must abide, laws regarding charity and community. In other words, literacy is the key to cultivating beautiful minds, and from there a beautiful world.
Ingraham, Christopher. “The long, steady decline of literary reading.” The Washington Post, 7 Sept. 2016. Accessed 20 May 2018.
Perrin, Andrew. “Who doesn’t read books in America?” Fact Tank. Pew Research Center, 23 Mar. 2018. Accessed 20 May 2018.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. 1995. Ballantine Books, 1997.
Sagan, Carl, Ann Druyan, el al. “The Persistence of Time.” Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, season 1, episode 11. Public Broadcasting Service, 1980.
Witt, Ann Frese, et al. The Humanities, edition 7, volume I. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.