Thanks, Mary. I read this article quickly but I feel unusually compelled to comment on it. I am a philosophy lecturer at a prestigious traditional university in the UK (not Oxbridge). The worry - what to do with post-literate students?! - is real for me. A significant proportion of students never show up for class and I suspect this is because attendance goes with a commitment to weekly readings. They've learned they can scratch out a 2-1 for most classes by reading one or two papers on the topic of their midterm and final essays, and then writing something generic but not plagiarised. The availability of GPT will make the temptation to cheat pretty strong. In my last class I made the final essay more of a research project where they had to find a non-standard text and analyse it in a way that didn't overlap with the kind of questions addressed in philosophy text books and usual undergrad source materials. Though this had nothing to do with the recent hype around chat GPT, I think this may be a useful anti-cheating strategy for future. It is too easy for AI generate another essay on Searle's 'Chinese Room Argument', but why as lecturers stick to teaching what the internet already has loads of stuff on? As to literacy and diversity, this is one-sided. I happen to be a non-white, female philosopher. Earlier in my career especially, I found writing and publishing philosophy an escape from the performative, aggrandising aspects of spoken philosophising that white, male individuals are so readily socialised to do well at. It's incredibly patronising to say that non-white people are disadvantaged by having to express themselves in writing. (I happen to be middle class and privately educated, but how many of these EDI people give a damn about class, anyway?) Finally, as to non-literate culture in general. One side of my family is from a colonised country in which literacy is a relatively new introduction (within last 150 years). Without falling into usual traps of romanticising, from what I noticed, I do think that non-literate cultures (dimensions of this get preserved, even after most people in a country learn to read) explore the possibility space of human thought and experience in interestingly different ways - e.g. in terms of memory and attention to details of places and people. I was impressed by how much better my father was at navigating from memory, than the average Englishman, and that's what you can do if you pay attention to where you are and don't rely on maps (another product of print culture). But I don't think at all that you can extrapolate from cultures such as these, to where we're headed in an internet saturated but non-literate culture. Print map reading skills have replaced the non-skill of following the blue dot on a glowing screen. The online version of non-literacy equates to even less situational awareness because the new non-print visual culture is addictive, mediated, and crafted by algorithms that do not have your best cognitive interests at heart.

Expand full comment

This is the other side of the coin for me- the time I have left over from worrying about the future of my children and grandchildren I spend on worrying about the death of western civilization. I love them both very much, my descendants and Christendom, but I am probably more firmly attached to the latter, relationships being trickier for me than books. I cannot conceive of a life unmoored to the literature, unable to appreciate a reference to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to the classics, whether, Greek, Roman, or Dickens. Think how exactly the shorthand works- if I compare someone to Pecksniff, Micawber, or Steerforth, you know exactly what I mean. And we all know a Becky Sharp, Thackeray’s finest. It is an incredible impoverishment of the imagination to jettison all this, and that it is done with the connivance of those entrusted to teach it convinces me that they never really understood the value of what they taught, and for how far back does the rot reach?

You are completely on point here, it is too late to speak of saving anything except in tiny enclaves. I am currently compiling a list of books I need to replace in print copies, having been seduced by the convenience and cheapness of the classics on kindle I am now concerned that Amazon will decide to edit or remove problematic texts without my knowledge or approval, the licensing allowing for this. When we stopped homeschooling we ruthlessly culled several thousand books in an effort to control the house, each room of which resembled a disorganized library. Sorry now.

Calling any of this elitist is absurd. I was raised in a working class home with few books. I read a grocery store encyclopedia which included enough history, biographies of writers and lists of works for me to educate myself beginning in elementary school. Mine is a thoroughly romantic relationship with literacy. It afforded me an escape from a traumatic childhood and the prospect of a better way of life, which I have largely been able to realize. It is genuinely painful to know that this promise of a better way, a serene cerebral atmosphere, will be denied to future generations. That some people will have neither interest nor ability to benefit from the wealth of literate culture is not a reason to deny it to everyone, but in the absence of critical thinking skills such is the slop academe offers to those who don’t know any better and indeed are convinced there isn’t any better to be known. (Why do they think they are at university? Doubtless to get a credential that will led to a job, a job they can scarcely imagine as tangentially related to the nonsense they “learn” at school).

It may be too much to hope that monasteries make a comeback, but with public and even university libraries divesting themselves of actual books perhaps each of us moved by the beauty of the printed word could begin by building up personal libraries to the extent our space and purse allow?

Expand full comment

Very depressing. Monasteries are a good idea. But they were sustained by something larger and deeper that wanting to preserve knowledge. The preservation of knowledge was a secondary effect brought about by the incredible efficiencies and effectiveness of all those brothers working and building with No families to dissipate the stored wealth. Stored wealth enabled some to study and write and experiment. I think that “something else” has to be the vision.

And the old monasteries are still their. It might be time for revival.

Expand full comment

I'm hoping to build a new screen-free school, Mary. Would be fantastic to get your thoughts on its chances.

Two quotes I've been pondering recently in regard to the usefulness of reading in a post-literate age...

Angela Nagle:

"One possibility is that as reading becomes rare it will become more valuable with time, as those who preserve the tradition ultimately produce work of greatest value to society and thus will after a while reorient prestige back to the enclaves and institutions that retained the habit and the people and innovations it produces.

The other possibility is that real reading and the kinds of thinking and being it produces will leave the dwindling reading population hopelessly out of step with the entire value system and way of life of the broader culture and even unable to communicate effectively using the visual narrative sensibility that is required to influence and gain power in society."


Justin Murphy:

"First, I use my irreducibly human powers to decide what is worth studying, thinking about, etc. As I’ll discuss below, the stakes here are increasingly high…The first is just crystallized knowledge, i.e. what do you actually know? If not much, you better get started studying something real, and studying it deeply. It’s one of the only ways you’re going to rise above the swelling deluge of noise. In all of my experimentation, I’m struck by how badly AI tries to deal with interesting and unique pieces of knowledge I’ve derived from paper books over the years…Spend your time redoubling your rare, specific, unique knowledge. As AI becomes commoditized, it will get baked into everyone’s everyday computing tools, so all of the alpha will come from actually having something to say…The second element of your unique signal is what we might call your style—everything you love, value, and feel intensely, in the unique way that you personally love, value, and feel it. This is the only other thing that AI will not encroach upon any time soon (some would say never, though I prefer to remain agnostic.) It’s also one of the main reasons anyone in the world follows or subscribes to anyone else in the world, other than unique crystallized knowledge…Notice that much of your irreducibly human value-add comes at the very beginning of the work chain: Deciding what books to read (because you think they are valuable or fascinating), deciding what content not to consume (because it's not suited to the type of person you are, or wish to be). That's why I sold my TV. The stakes are so high right now; there will be so much upside in merely being correct that I want to ensure I spend all of my waking hours trying to be just a little more correct."


I remain hopeful!

Expand full comment

A deep and unfortunately depressing insight into another key facet of our civilizational decay through illiteracy!

Expand full comment

Brilliant, Mary!

Expand full comment