The Complete Fiasco of Universal Education

[Undated letter, probably 1939]

Nothing distresses me more than the complete fiasco of universal education which, it turns out, seems to make everyone at once more cynical and more gullible. I have always been an enemy of mere literacy; reading is an aid to the specialist but no more. The spoken word is much nobler and nearer the mind; cerebration and especially memory have suffered general atrophy because of the printed word. What puts me in this morbid theme is the recent hearing of some college students attempting to read simple English prose. Would you believe it, the spoken and written word had become so completely divorced in their minds that every few lines they would make the drollest mistakes of simple pronunciation, whence it appeared only too plainly that what they had been reading all along they comprehended only in the most vague and general way, and where the meaning of a whole document depended on a particular word, as it not infrequently does, even those general impressions were quite laughable – the sort of thing that results from getting one word wrong in an Arabic story. To put it frankly, ya habibi, I am worried.

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About Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, 1910-2005, was simultaneously the LDS Church's greatest intellectual defender from attack from the outside and Mormon culture's strongest critic from the inside. This blog is composed mainly from Nibley's unpublished writings, letters, interviews and conversations, with occasional posts from associates who had personal interactions with him.
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4 Responses to The Complete Fiasco of Universal Education

  1. Brian Wells says:

    This is a remarkable observation. One thing to note is that the western world has adopted a double-abstraction basis for the written word. That is, the words we write represent the sounds we make as we speak them and not the actual ideas behind those words. While i love (and prefer) the unassuming nature of this extra layer of abstraction (we’re communicating spoken words, not ideas or concepts directly, as with some eastern symbolic written languages), it can lead to the disconnect observed by your father. Readers who routinely fail to make the leap from utterance to idea are regarded as literate simply because they can sound out the words, when nothing could be further from the truth. They comprehend sound of the word, but not its meaning.

    However, I wouldn’t give up (or blame) the printed word for the impediment this extra layer of abstraction imposes on inexperienced or uneducated readers. To the extent cerebration and memory have suffered, it is not due to an under-requirement of mental acuity required to digest the written word.

    • Zina says:

      Thanks for the comment, Brian; I agree! WHat I think is amazing is that in ONE generation I bridge THIS guy, who is absolutely PLATONIC in his fear for the loss of memorization tot he printed word, and I have students who have never not had a spell checker, who cannot follow a sentence written by Jonathan Swift but CAN follow the convolutions and ellisions of an entire song by say, Usher, or Emminem.

      It blows my tiny mind.

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