The uses of illiteracy

July 12 2010

In [a village in Yorkshire], in A D. 1935, there was still living an old agricultural labourer who had not only never been to school but had never learnt to read or write, yet was unquestionably a cultivated man in virtue of knowing a large part of the Bible by heart, constantly turning it over in his mind, savouring its beauty of language, and feeling its spiritual power. In the same village, in the same year, there was a boy who was the clever child in his family (to the point of having prospects of being selected for promotion from the primary to the secondary school), and who showed his cleverness chiefly by being an omnivorous reader. A well-meant word of congratulation to his mother drew the unexpected reply. “Yes, he does read anything he can lay hands on, but I am going to take good care that he gets no more of that!” In this countrywoman’s mind (and she was a person of character) the printed word meant mental garbage in the style of the Yellow Press, and a facility in reading, in a child, spelt exposure to moral corruption. This woman’s view was a tragic commentary upon the social effects of our present half-baked system of Universal Education.

Economist pieces here and here are about how irrelevant the high-low culture dichotomy seems to most people now. Toynbee, on the other hand, had a point about the labourer.

City cousins

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

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