Sigfrid Steinberg: "Only Teach Such People To Read Who Will Like Good Books"

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.


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Yeah, but... you want archaeologists to do things that *you* like with their archaeological knowledge, no?

"universal literacy is of course a requisite for a functioning democracy"
In some places (yes, USA, I am looking at you!) bad education for the peons is a feature, not a bug. You don't want the trash to get ideas above their station.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 05 Aug 2014 #permalink

What use is the knowledge of reading if it is applied to worthless or even debasing trash?

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Steinberg's attitude is a large step on the road to censorship.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Aug 2014 #permalink

@Birger - also true in the UK! Only there it's called the class system.

@ Martin - what, you mean you *don't* object on principle to the things that po-mos do with archaeological funding? I must have been misreading you!

@jane: The big difference between what Steinberg was saying and what Martin says about postmodern archaeologists is that Steinberg is presuming to impose his views on people he views as inferior in some way. Martin is free to oppose postmodern archaeology, but those people are at least theoretically his peers. They can fight back on even terms, in a way that the people Steinberg is writing about cannot.

@Birger: The US school system is designed to be egalitarian, in a way that the system in many other countries (especially the UK) is not. But yes, there are many politicians who are trying to break the system, and some places where the system never really worked as designed. Basically, as long as the students were people who looked like the voters, it worked quite well, and still does in places with relatively small non-white populations (such as where I live). There are some other places where people are comfortable around people who don't look like them, and in those areas the system also works reasonably well. The biggest problems are in places where people are afraid of others who aren't like them--generally but not exclusively the South and the Great Plains regions.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Aug 2014 #permalink

many people argue that any reading is good. "at least he is reading" I think reading crap is crap so he is not far off.

Jane, how did we move from the uses of archaeological knowledge to the uses of funding? All available funding for most sectors of society should of course be given to empirically minded archaeologists.

I don't actually get hate mail. I get strange ladies sending me pictures of sacred procreation rocks that look like erect penises.

Also, a certain kind of people think civilsation peaked in the 1950s.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Aug 2014 #permalink

"sacred procreation rocks that look like erect penises" The lady would freak out if she visited Gotland. The erosion favors penisy-looking cliffs.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Aug 2014 #permalink

She came from the land Down Under
(looks up sees, procreation rocks falling down)
"you better run,
you better take cover"

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Aug 2014 #permalink

Also, a certain kind of people think civilsation peaked in the 1950s.

Indeed, there are many such people in the US. They are the target audience for Fox News.

I'm sure there are people in Sweden who take their religion much too seriously, but the proportion is much smaller than in the US, and in particular the US Air Force. The Air Force Academy, where most US Air Force officers are trained, is in Colorado Springs, which is also a major hotbed for the American religious right, so the Air Force ends up with far too many officers who are religious nut jobs. That's what Mike Weinstein is fighting against. Weinstein's existence leads to people claiming, "Help! Help! I'm being repressed!" So he gets hate mail. Martin does not push those buttons, so he doesn't get hate mail.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Aug 2014 #permalink

John @7: But who gets to decide it's crap? The Lord of the Ring trilogy is generally considered to be a literary classic of fantasy, but there are still plenty of people who deride it as trash just because there are elves.

I'm sure that there are people who only read "literary" works; Great Expectations, The Goldfinch and so on. Personally, I don't have the energy for that. Sometimes I want to read to relax, to have fun. I'm not having fun reading the Brothers Karamotzov (sp?), no matter what a great piece of literature it is.

So yes, at least they're reading.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 06 Aug 2014 #permalink

"Great Expectations" is a fine unassuming entertainment novel, not highbrow pretentious fare.

@Birger, #9 - thanks for that one, the comments on that post are actually really funny. But then I'm a fan of snark. And the Snark. Just not the Snork. Am I the only person in the universe who finds all of Moomintroll's mates rather sinister?

Ew... I'd not come across her so far. Thanks for that image. Not. I'd much rather Findus and Pettson's mucklor than any of the Moomin gang. Though Moomintroll himself is, of course, lovely.

(OT) Computer model simulates Neolithic transition from egalitarianism to leadership and despotism…
Question: How do you test the assumptions against reality?
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Mårran was so frightening, if she stood in one spot for a longer time nothing would grow there. The ground died of fright.
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Speaking of fine unassuming entertainment novels, I have ordered the latest "Laundry" novel. Let me know if you want me to forward it to you when I am done,

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 07 Aug 2014 #permalink

"I met a strange lady
She made me nervos
On account of the penile pictures"
--- --- --- ---
"Basic recipe for human groups does not require race, politics or religion"
But it helps if you can say more than "Oog" to explain why the tribe next door will make a great meal.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 07 Aug 2014 #permalink

Birger, I've read only the Atrocity Archives, Jennifer Morgue and Fuller Memorandum so far. You should be on Goodreads!

Haha, "On account of the penile pictures”!

Birger @21: Any difference will do. It could be something as simple as which side of the bread you butter. But you don't need to articulate it; it's enough to divide people into Us and Them. Humans aren't the only species that's known to have wars between different bands.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Aug 2014 #permalink

This reminds me that my daughter finds most of the collected works of the Brönte sisters to be tedious (including Wuthering Heights and the collected works of Charlotte Brönte, who wrote endless long, detailed and pointless descriptions of pieces of furniture) with the exception of Anne Brönte, the youngest sister, who she rightly identifies as one of the first true feminists.

Anne died at the age of 29 of tuberculosis at Scarborough, having travelled there accompanied by older sister Charlotte in the hope that the sea air would help to alleviate her illness (on the way there the day before they arrived, she berated someone for beating a donkey - the next day, as she lay dying, her last words were to her older sister Charlotte: "Take courage, Charlotte, take courage." Like, she was comforting her sister as she was dying, which says something about a person.)

Anne has largely been ignored because she only published two novels. They were regarded as "shocking" at the time, and elder sister Charlotte sought to have them suppressed, to the extent of censoring, and refusing second printings - it was like she tried to erase the work of her youngest sister.

However, I am convinced that Anne was the best of them. She suffered a 'religious crisis' which she documented (i.e. she realised that in fact she was atheist, and as much as admitted it, at a time when it was definitely not popular to make such awakenings known), and she was a true believer in gender equality, and wrote about some of the really nasty stuff that happened in a very honest and accurate way.

So, define 'good book' - is it the stupid, juvenile, wittering Wuthering Heights, or the courageous no-holds-barred outing of the vicious gender inequality of the time "Tenant of Wildfell Hall"?

And Anne Brönte did *not*, I wish to make clear, come from a Land Down Under. But she has become on of the pantheon of my heroes, thanks to my daughter's untiring efforts to educate me

By John Massey (not verified) on 09 Aug 2014 #permalink

And before Birger leaps to Kate Bush's defence, I remain firmly convinced that she intended that song to be satire - she was taking the piss out of absolutely everyone, including herself, and the whole world fell for it.

I now think that a great deal of Bush's work is satirical - not all of it, but a hell of a lot of it.

if this isn't a massive piss-take, and a great song rolled into one, my mind must be going. But then when I first heard it on my car radio in 1978, I though "Either that girl is stark raving mad, and she is being as satyrical as hell." And she's not mad, I'm sure of that.

By John Massey (not verified) on 09 Aug 2014 #permalink

E. Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" didn't survive my 50-page test.

An old lecher I know once told me, "One in Kate Bush is better than ten in the hand".

Kate studied both dance and martial arts, and was undoubtedly in excellent physical shape when she made this:

I doubt the old lecher would find her too interesting now, though - 34 years later she has turned into a dumpling.

Bugger - why can I never get Brontë right? Because it's a fudge, that's why - it's an Anglicisation of a Gaelic name.

All the more odd that their Irish father was an Anglican parson. I have never seen anyone even attempt to explain the oddity of that.

Anyway, whatever he was, Anne obviously decided he was full of it, and it clearly caused her considerable mental anguish, the realisation that she just couldn't and didn't believe any of it.

By John Massey (not verified) on 09 Aug 2014 #permalink

Thank you very much, YuSie!

By John Massey (not verified) on 10 Aug 2014 #permalink

Kate Bush was a pioneer with using cordless mikes at concets get more freedom for the stage show, and a pioneer in using ballet for it. I recall hearing that her first cordless mike used a coathanger banged into shape to serve as whachamaycall it, that bit that hangs at the side of the head and holds up the mike.
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"turned into a dumpling" -so was Maria Callas. Didn't do her any harm.
Moomintrolls' mates -I always admired little My.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 10 Aug 2014 #permalink