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Review: Ananda Coomaraswamy’s ‘The Bugbear of Literacy’

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by Lucas Smith

AK Coomaraswamy

As modern life increases in scope and complexity there is an increasing impulse to ask basic questions about things that our societies take for granted. One such question concerns the good of written communication, literacy. Can literacy impoverish as well as empower? In an age of near universal education such a question seems quixotic, even dangerous.

Ananda Coomaraswamy, born 150 years ago in Ceylon to a Tamil father and English mother, outlines a measured scepticism of literacy in his 1946 essay ‘The Bugbear of Literacy’ It might seem ironic to question the value of literacy in essay form but it is one of Coomaraswamy’s characteristic aristocratic touches that he omits any acknowledgment of this. He does not attack literacy as such, for many cultures have developed written language independently and it would seem to be something of a natural human production. Coomaraswamy is concerned specifically ‘with the fallacy involved in the attachment of an absolute value to literacy.’ 

 He considers mass literacy, especially that related to the functioning of the global industrial economy, to be an imposition that sweeps away oral tradition, standardises thought, and uproots peoples from their heritage and their native soil. Coomaraswamy quotes examples of Sinhalese, Irish, Scottish and Central African peoples whose oldest and least literate members are the most refined and knowledgeable speakers. He stands firmly against any utilitarian view that does not take account of man’s whole nature.

 ‘For a proletariat, literacy is a practical and cultural necessity. We may remark in passing that necessities are not always goods in themselves, out of their context; some, like wooden legs, are advantageous only to men already maimed.’

Certainly, to be illiterate in the modern economy is to be left out and severely limited in one’s options. Still, in advanced economies there are those who make do, and who feel no loss from their lack of learning. An illegal immigrant from Mexico who worked with me in the kitchen of a bakery in the United States could not read or write Spanish nor English except for the abbreviations, signs and numbers for the sandwich orders that appeared to him on the kitchen screen, which he had memorised. He rarely if ever, made a mistake.

Coomaraswamy is a writer of the Perennialist school, which elucidates what they consider to be a primordial metaphysical (capital T) Tradition common to all human cultures. The imposition of literacy from the modern West (for there was at the time and still is, though to a lesser extent now, an unmodern West), impoverished while exploiting the rest of the world through standardisation, a colonial imposition initiated with little forethought and little malice, but which nevertheless had stark consequences.

 Nearly eighty years on from this writing, in the time of mass immigration into the West from the rest of the world we can see the fruits of this campaign, where third world people desire nothing more, it seems, than to live in a comfortable suburban home and work in an office speaking bureaucratic English. 

Nor is this destructive dynamic only played out between Western and non-Western peoples. Coomaraswamy’s main example of literacy as a stripping away, is the destruction of the Irish language, and specifically its oral tradition, over many centuries. There is a video on youtube of an illiterate monolingual Irish-speaking man from County Mayo reciting ancient Irish epic poetry in the 1980s. He is said to be among the last of his kind. How many among us can count ourselves as culturally rich? 

Coomaraswamy, like his friend and associate Rene Guenon, and others of the Perennialist tradition, frame their critiques not as enemies or opportunistic grifters, but as mourners who recognise the spiritual and cultural poverty of contemporary life, circumstances made all the more tragic because they are counted by so many as gains. 

The clearest objection to learning to read is very old and common, that the use of written language will cause a withering of memory. ‘Cannot a man remember?’ ask Plato, and in Coomaraswamy’s example, a group of New Hebrideans encountering an earnest missionary. In the time of ubiquitous smartphones, where needed information can be looked up almost at any time, who can doubt this? How many phone numbers did you have memorised when you were a child? How many now?  

Many mourn the folkways that are slipping away around the world in the relentless quest for material improvement, and grieve especially for us in the West where that process is most advanced, the loss of small European languages, folk dance and folk singing, Celtic poetry. I think most especially of Australian folklore and slang. Yes, many of these things will be recorded and preserved, but to preserve is another way to destroy. An Irish bard who records his epics into a tape recorder with the help of a university anthropologist instead of passing them on to his sons has admitted defeat, a defeat not of his own doing, but a defeat nonetheless. To put something into a museum is to take it under.

 Consider the world of poetry, which has shrunk from a popular art form printed in mass periodicals and memorised and recited frequently by ordinary folk, to a niche practice kept on life support by universities and eccentric individuals. Ordinary folk, of course, still memorise words in large quantities in the form of popular song lyrics. That poetry is in decline in an age of universal literacy might seem paradoxical but if we understand literacy to be a formalisation and standardisation of thought then this is no surprise. How many people do you know who have even a single folk song of their people memorised?

Controlled experiments to test the effects of the absence of basic aspects of our society, e.g. democracy, are impossible. Second, third and fourth order effects of a mass reduction in literacy are impossible to predict. We are stuck with reading and writing, at least for the time being.

For anyone reading this the damage has been done. It is not possible to wilfully lose the ability to read. What we can do is recognise when our reading becomes a substitute for thinking or a barrier to true connection with our nature and cultural heritage. Coomaraswamy helps us to begin to think critically about our unexamined assumptions of education.