The Death and Birth of Cultural Literacy

January 28, 2013 by John Andrew Williams

In ancient Rome or Greece, the best chance you had of staying up to date on the latest works was leisure time, the good fortune to be literate, and having your hands on the works of, for example, Horace. Works were produced at a much slower pace, and the limiting factor to achieving cultural literacy was the time you could take away from the fields or your profession.

After Rome fell and the world entered the Middle Ages, being culturally literate required even more luck, such as being connected to royalty or the clergy, and certainly having a penchant for words and reading… oh, and lots and lots of candles. But back then, it was still relatively easy to read the complete works of an author.

Enter the Enlightenment and the introduction of the printing press. For the first time in history, the scales begin to tip – producing materials to consume started to become faster than the time it took to consume them. More people were literate, yet there were more works to read and consume.

Fast-forward to radio, television, computers and e-mail and the Internet and Twitter, and now look at how much stuff there is to consume. It’s like a run-on sentence that 4th grade teachers desperately want to fix, yet the run-ons keep coming at a rate that’s impossible to manage and the minute someone takes out an ‘and’ and puts in a period and gets set to capitalize the next word, yet another sentence gets tacked on.

Attention is now the limiting factor. Editors, people able to pick out the best information and present it, are just as valuable as authors. The scales have inevitably tipped in favor of consuming information and aiming to read all that culture has to offer.  Becoming completely Culturally Literate is an ever increasing challenge.

This evolution, ironically, can be summed up by the ancient philosophers and their wisdom about taking the time to examine themselves and the human condition.  Their wisdom dictates that we should ask ourselves, ‘What in us needs to be cultivated, shared, and nurtured?’

The answer is literally the seed of Cultural Literacy.

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