Thanks for the Memory

Literacy is – and should be – a constant preoccupation in Morocco. But there is underlying this preoccupation, the constant question of what people are to do with their literacy once they have it. It isn’t, after all, an end in itself. That dismissive expression ‘signature-literacy’ describes the ability to write one’s name but little (if anything) more; and anyone who has worked on early modern wills in England will know how misleading it is to assume that someone who has signed his name to a will is actually in a wider, functional sense, literate. Of the 56% of Moroccans who are literate, many are ‘signature-literate,’ and many more, equipped with the World Bank’s minimum, the ability to read and write a statement about everyday life, don’t progress further.

Literacy is like a muscle, prone to atrophy if left unused, so that growth in real, active literacy demands the formation of reading-habits, the availability of material to read, the social valuation of doing so. All these are challenges in Morocco. It is a society in which memory is highly prized, still, and some in the more traditional, oral couches of society fear literacy as a threat to active memory. This is not in any way absurd: Plato thought much the same, writing in his Phædrus, “If men learn this [reading], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” And at the ‘modern’ end of the memory argument there is much debate on the effect of computers on reading, memory and knowledge. In a society in which the committing to memory of the Qu’ran by the young hafiz remains quite widespread – still much commoner today than in the mashriq – and in which traditional education still requires the memorisation of multiple texts in different areas  of knowledge, rather in the manner of Fahrenheit 451, memory remains highly prized and protected.

But there’s another danger, of acquiring the mechanics of literacy without the critical tools that make it more than a route for the inculcation of prejudices and received opinions, the equivalent of the funnel in the beak of a force-fed goose. Writing in L’Economiste this week, Alain Bentolila, professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne, tackles the perils of uncritical literacy. “Because,” he writes, “there are forms of literacy still more imprisoning than illiteracy. These make of texts the instrument of an unscrupulous intellectual manipulation – and of writing, a turning-inward and rejection of the Other. They enslave rather than liberate.”

Bentolila is writing about the enclosed literacy of religious education in many countries, and not just Muslim (he instances Israel, too). His point is that literacy without the critical faculty is doubly dangerous, a hyperlink for the transmission of received opinion without critical examination. Well, many will retort, that’s precisely the point of traditional religious education – to deliver the text as written, without reinterpretation.

“I want,” he goes on, “to say that learning to read is exactly the opposite of revelation, it’s the high-road to intellectual conquest. The firm refusal of obscurantism. An honest education instills in the pupil an understanding that the value of a text doesn’t depend on the status of the person who wrote it. Because if the reader believes that the stature of the author places a text beyond the reach of his own intelligence and sensibility, he is renouncing entirely the exercise of his rights of interpretation and refutation. He delivers himself, bound hand and foot, to less scrupulous intermediaries who claim to be the only possessors of an understanding of the texts which must be received with fear and deference.”

This sense that reading is a two-edged sword is interesting and important. Literacy is in the sense that Bentolilo describes it, an empty vessel waiting to be filled. Into it can be poured the sweet oil of intellectual enquiry, openness and curiosity; or the vinegar of uncritical reception, of hostility to the unexpected, the unorthodox, the creative and the unfamiliar. Like oil and vinegar they don’t mix.

This is of course why literacy is, at some times and places, political dynamite. Bentolila regards literacy as an intellectual tin-opener, an answer to obscurantism of tradition. Others have gone further, particularly Paolo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and his followers, in espousing a critical, liberating literacy which is designed to open up received political and social wisdoms to rational criticism by the underdogs in society and to power radical social change. And in countries where there has been religious, social and political opposition to firm action in combating illiteracy, it is often fear of just this opening-up that is the driver. Until the present century this was an overarching political attitude in Morocco: it no longer is, at least to the extent that it was under the late King Hassan II; and literacy is growing, albeit slowly. The task now is to make sure that literacy becomes the foundation stone of a thinking, open-minded society, not a closed, uncritical one.

“Reading,” to continue quoting Bentolila, “is to learn establish a correct balance between these two demands: the proper requirement of personal interpretation, and the respectful taking into account of the conventions of the text. Any imbalance seriously undermines the honesty of the act of reading. Because when respect for the text changes into fearful servility, at the point where even understanding becomes an offence, the risk opens up of not daring to allow the text a sonorous existence of its own; of preventing the reader’s finding sense in it, or making sense of it, because all interpretation of the sense becomes sacrilegious.”

And the word for inculcating this balance is Education.

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