The Rationality of Literacy

Over the past couple months, I have worked on developing a mission statement for one of my overarching goals – something like a „life goal“. Initial attempts were quite abstract, and I was greatly helped by the very considerate feedback of friends.

In the intervening weeks since those first trials, I have kept the general aim present but I have focused on it much less. Over the past several days, I have received several ideas from other sources – more or less haphazardly, which have motivated me to reconsider this particular life goal again from a new perspective.

For people who have been following my writing for several years, it should be no surprize that literacy is really at the crux of my thinking about many topics, and also with respect to this particular life goal for which I want to craft a mission statement. One thing that has been „bugging“ me for the past year or two is how my focus on literacy is considered by many – indeed, including myself – to be a non-human matter. In this view, reading, writing and arithmetic are technologies and therefore lack the warmth of flesh-and-blood human beings. Code and language are inert, not living things, and they cannot ultimately provide meaning in the same way as interaction with other humans can – as humans (so this argument) we are, after all, social animals.

This view, however, interprets technology from a very parochial point of view. According to this perspective, technology is merely an artefact, a curiosity, a product… albeit of human ingenuity. We pound nails not because there is anything interesting about doing so, but merely because doing so makes our lives easier from the results of applying such technologies. There is nothing interesting about iron or steel per se, but rather such materials are only interesting insofar as they can be manipulated into helping to make nails, just as nails are only interesting insofar as they can be used to build more things. As an aside: It might make sense to think about how the technologies we use also create threating things – such as global warming, nuclear waste, AIDS and/or many other problems.

Yet let me not drift away from the current issue – crafting my mission statement. I view language and literacy somewhat differently than most… and over the years, my thinking about these things has also undergone continued development and refinement. While I have long known (or believed) that language cannot be owned (e.g. by a monarch) or dictated (e.g. to the masses), I am now at a point where I feel it may be useful to extrapolate beyond this rather mundane and obvious fact to recognize a „rationality of literacy“, in which people make a rational decision to engage with each other via linguistic technologies. In this vein, literacy is also not simply owned or attained, but rather it is practiced (or – in the case of illiteracynot practiced).

This is important because it redirects our attention away from the ownership of resources to the actual use of such resources. To give a concrete example: In order to engage with „cars“, it is not necessary to own cars. Engagement with cars can also happen when someone references cars. Statements like „cars are good“ or „cars are bad“ are social expressions insofar as there is agreement within a society regarding what these words (and expressions) mean.

Likewise, our level of engagement with a topic can be as small or as large as our involvement with various other social institutions related to that topic. We might simply talk about cars with very little engagement, or we might become much more involved with cars by joining organizations that deal with them and associated technologies. Our involvement with „cars“ may lead us to become involved with „pedestrians“, „streets“, „roads“, „highways“, „infrastructure“, „pollution“, „global warming“ and many other topics, too.

We do not need to become dictators in any of these arenas. It is completely sufficient to simply engage – to participate in the social construction of the reality related to each of these terms. It ought to be quite plain to see that the reality we thereby create in one arena might not be the exact same reality created in another arena. There might be nuanced differences, but there might also be meaningful relationships between and among the various arenas.

Increased engagement in more and more arenas goes hand in hand with increased literacy. These two phenomena are crucially related: You cannot have one without the other (that is, at least, a hypothesis I am venturing here).

This thinking is what leads me to venture that the mission statement I need probably goes something like: My mission is to promote literacy – in order to increase community engagement and social cohesion, and also in order to motivate humans more towards alignment and harmony with natural evolution.