The most important contribution of the invention of written language to the species is a democratic foundation for critical, inferential reasoning and reflective capacities. This is the basis of a collective conscience. If we in the twenty-first century are to preserve a vital collective conscience, we must ensure that all members of our society are able to read and think both deeply and well. We will fail as a society if we do not educate our children and reeducate all of our citizenry to the responsibility of each citizen to process information vigilantly, critically, and wisely across media. And we will fail as a society as surely as societies of the twentieth century if we do not recognize and acknowledge the capacity for reflective reasoning in those who dis- agree with us.
As Nadine Strossen writes persuasively in her new book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, a democracy succeeds only when the rights, thoughts, and aspirations of all its citizens are respected and given voice and its citizens believe that this is true, regardless of their viewpoint. The great, insufficiently discussed danger to a democracy stems not from the expression of different views but from the failure to ensure that all citizens are educated to use their full intellectual powers in forming those views. The vacuum that occurs when this is not realized leads ineluctably to a vulnerability to demagoguery, where falsely raised hopes and falsely raised fears trump reason and the capacity for reflective thinking recedes, along with its influence on rational, empathic decision making.
Most people never become aware of any of this. As my recent faux experiment reading Hesse’s Magister Ludi illustrates, a personal awareness of the gradual disuse of our reflective faculties, much less a societal awareness, is a weak and porous thing—to be tested, not trusted. Just as I worry that in their overreliance on external sources of information, our young will not know what they do not know, I worry equally that we, their guides, do not realize the insidious narrowing of our own thinking, the imperceptible shortening of our attention to complex issues, the unsuspected diminishing of our ability to write, read, or think past 140 characters. We must all take stock of who we are as readers, writers, and thinkers.
The good readers of a society are both its canaries— which detect the presence of danger to its members—and its guardians of our common humanity. The final perquisite of the third reading life is the ability to transform in- formation into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Indeed, just as Margaret Levi has suggested for the basis of altruism, the combining of our highest intellectual and empathic powers with our capacity for virtue may well be why our species has continued. If these capacities are endangered, if good readers are endangered, so are we all. If they are supported, we will have not only an antidote to the weaknesses of a digital culture but a key to propelling our culture’s greatest potential into the future: wise action.
Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research. She currently directs the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, and is working with the Dyslexia Center at the UCSF Medical School and with Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Initiative, which she co-founded. She is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. She is the author of Proust and the Squid (Harper), Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), and more than 160 scientific publications.
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