Ancient Romans, Illiteracy, and the Internet

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The ideas puts forth in Anthony Di Renzo's essay "His Master's Voice: Tiro and the Rise of the Roman Secretarial Class" were very interesting because I have never really studied ancient Rome in much detail.  I was completely unaware of the place that slaves held in the community, and did not even know that they could free themselves, so Tiro's story was fascinating to learn about.  For instance, Di Renzo writes, “Tiro was sent to elementary school, the ludus litterarius, to learn reading and writing.  This was not an act of generosity but necessity.  Rome was the most literate society of the classical world, ‘a civilization based on the book and the register,’ and ‘no one, either free or slave, could afford to be illiterate’ (Dupont qtd. in Di Renzo).  Previously, I was only familiar with the more modern idea of slavery that includes not allowing slaves to be literate for fear of revolt.  I think this fact shows so much about what was important to their culture. 

Reading this also made me take a closer look at our culture in the United States today, where illiteracy is found far too often.  The CIA World Factbook reports that 99% of the total population (over the age of 15) of the United States in 2003 could read and write; however, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, “twenty two percent of adults [in 2003] were Below Basic (indicating they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in document literacy.”  This does not seem to coincide, even though children are not assessed in the second survey.  I am fairly certain that if we as Americans do not even ensure that our actual citizens are literate then we would not educated those who are not citizen anywhere near as well as the Romans did their non-citizens.  However, Rome was moving into the manuscript culture that required a knowledge of reading and writing that their previous oral culture did not. 

Still, despite our movement into the digital age, print remains a major part of the digital system.  Yes, more concrete visual and aural areas are being developed through the use of the Internet; however print is still the major focus, or if not the explicit focus, the facilitator or explainer of the more visual or aural spotlight.  Perhaps print is still playing such a major role because many people alive today grew up using only physical print sources.  Di Renzo points out at the end of his article that, “Scholars and historians of professional and technical writing often claim that technological revolutions in communications empower the marginalized and encourage freedom, but the story of Tironean shorthand shows that not all communications revolutions are benign and that empowering the disenfranchised does not necessarily encourage good citizenship or secure liberty.”  This statement can be applied to the illiteracy problem.  Because we did not have high literacy standards, in my opinion, newspapers were written on an elementary school level, the Internet allowed for the prevalence of non-text based spread of information, and so on.  However, in doing so, we may not be promoting the best types of citizenship or liberty. 

For instance, slanderous gossip is spread more quickly and easily, but less obviously.  I’m thinking particularly of such gossip spread by young people online; however, this could also apply to that spread about celebrities and politicians.  Also, think of all of the fears that the Internet brings with it, such as viruses, identity thieves, and hacking.  These certainly do not enhance our liberties.  The Internet is also much easier in some ways to regulate in the sense that certain groups, from school students to entire countries like China, can be prevented, for better or for ill, from visiting certain websites.  It is so interesting that by looking at a society that existed thousands of years ago, we can see our own as if looking in a mirror.  Hopefully, though, our current and future movements in technology will not be so violent as the Roman movement from oral to manuscript culture.

See what others have to say about Di Renzo's essay. 



Anonymous said:

Illiteracy means inability to read and write. It is the root cause of ignorance which frustrates all development efforts of the government and the community. Eradication of illiteracy in a country like Bangladesh with so vast a population is undoubtedly a gigantic task. It is the social responsibility of all the literate people. men and women.To make some concerted efforts to remove illiteracy from society. The government of Bangladesh has already undertaken some important Programs in this regard. To provide primary education for at least 70 percent of children of six to ten years of age by the end of 1990. The government has launched a pro gramme called the Universal Primary Education (UPE) Project. There is another education program in which each primary school in a community is to be regarded as a Community Learning Center (CLC). The objective is to involve increasingly the parents and the members of the community in the educational activities of the school. The adults and the out-of-school youths will come to the school in the afternoon or in the evening after their work. Here they will receive not only basic education but also practical training in their vocations. The mass media, especially radio TV and newspapers can play a vital role in marking the people more conscious of the importance of literacy in the life of a nation. They can broadcast and publish regular features on various aspects of basic education. adult education and mass literacy.

Erica Gearhart said:

I really enjoyed reading your comments about Bangladesh. As a future educator, I am saddened when I hear of the many areas in the world where not only are people illiterate, but they do not even have the compulsory education that our country provides. I agree with you to some extent when you write that illiteracy is the "root cause of ignorance;" however, I also think that what one has available for reading can also cause oppression of informed opinions, or as you say, "ignorance." It is really great that Bangladesh is including community and family involvement in the reformation of their educational system, somthing that would be a great benefit to education in the United States as well. Thanks so much for your comments!

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