Teaching slaves to read was an act punishable by steep fines and/or corporal punishment. That is a historical fact. And I feel like it’s critically important that we understand the depth, breadth, and power that that simple fact has on both readers and writers.
It was a privilege fought for. It was a right denied people as a basic part of their humanity, their personhood. Why? It’s much harder to own someone without any distinction between them and yourself. So if you go granting slaves the right to read and write and be educated, they’re practically people at that point. Because then you’re more or less admitting that they aren’t livestock. They aren’t a different species. They are human beings with the same capacities as you, not just another possession for you.
And you might be saying, “Well duh, slavery ended with the Civil War,” or “Nobody is preventing anyone from being literate.” And that’s true, but I think that the gravitas with which we approach the gift of education has been diminished to the point of absurdity. Our culture no longer views literacy with the awe it deserves. Why?
Well, my theory, and it’s maybe just the thoughts bouncing about in my grey-meat, is that we have a false sense of education now. We believe because we have access to all the world’s information, it’s the same as possessing that knowledge. It’s not. And it makes us think we’re smarter than we are. It makes us think we’re disciplined when we’re lazy. It makes us think we’re curious when we’re satisfied. And hear me, I am not saying everyone ought to have master’s degrees. Far from it. I believe, however, we must always remember the price paid in blood, and to prize such a wonderful thing as highly as it ought to be.
Reading, the acquisition of information for the betterment of humanity through the written word, should be given with care and wonder to every generation and every person we can. We should challenge each other to read, to gather information, and to be critical of the written word. Whether it’s in book clubs, or writer’s circles, or just in families, the written word should still have the power to move us.
Should we throw away our TVs? No. But we should remember that without the written word, every single thing we enjoy about television would be, at best, horrible.
Literacy is imperative. That is to say, it is something that people, in an effort to better all, should pursue and encourage others to pursue. If everybody were to read more, we all would win. And that might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I cannot see a downside to our society as a whole becoming more literate.