I’ve been reading a 1974 edition of Sigfrid Steinberg’s 1955 classic Five Hundred Years Of Printing. Overall I’ve found it interesting and instructive, with a fine touch of sarcastic humour. But I came across a few paragraphs on the value of universal literacy that are so alien to me that I almost had to rub my eyes.
Compulsory and free education on the elementary-school level was achieved, at least on paper, in most civilized countries in the course of the nineteenth century … At the same time … there is the basic question of the purpose of educating the masses. What use is the knowledge of reading if it is applied to worthless or even debasing trash? (Ch. III:6, pp. 324-325)
In the society where me and my kids grew up, literacy is seen as an inalienable human right. The question is never “Should we let these people learn how to read”, but “How can we help people who are being denied this basic right”. To me, an aesthetic relativist, it’s breath-takingly naïve of Steinberg to complain that people use this literacy to read stuff he doesn’t approve of. They didn’t ask for your opinion, man, and somebody did teach you to read despite not knowing what your taste would be like.
He goes on with doom and gloom that is incomprehensible 60 years later:
The utilitarians were confident that improved education would result in greater fitness for coping with the economic and technical advances of the time: liberal politicians predicted from it a better preparation for good citizenship and a growth of international understanding. We know the results. ‘The penalty of universal literacy’, as a writer in The Times Literary Supplement put it (30 October 1953), may well be our ‘moving into an age when everyone will know how to read but none will turn his knowledge to good purpose’. (Ch. III:6, pp. 325)
What was the problem to these people’s minds in the early 50s!?
Beyond the rights of the individual, universal literacy is of course a requisite for a functioning democracy. Just as we don’t let people drive without a licence, we can’t give everybody among ourselves the parliamentary vote unless we also ensure that we’ll all make a reasonably informed choice. (Political TV advertising should of course be illegal. For shame, USA.)
But the man is aware of this point and, inconsistently, seems to support it – unless he assumes an anti-democratic reader. Having told us that only people who share his taste should be allowed to learn to read, on the same page he goes on:
The transformation of the newspaper into an instrument of mass-information and mass-education, into the voice … of democracy, is the major contribution of the United States of America to the history of the printed word. (Ch. III:6, pp. 325-326)
I guess there’s a reason why Sigfrid Steinberg is remembered as an historian of the book business and not as a political thinker.