Guest blogger Jamie Huston posts again!
At this time of year when Latter-day Saints remember their cherished heritage of devotion and sacrifice from the pioneers, I hope we keep in mind another aspect of our cultural history: literacy.
One of my favorite books is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death (surprise!), and in chapter four he does an astounding job of describing the climate of nearly ubiquitous literacy in 19th century America. A major part of that culture was oratory, about which Postman lovingly cites anecdote after anecdote, including a paragraph that summarizes some of early America’s most popular areas for oratorical conventions, or, as Postman calls them, “conference centers.”
Gee, where in American society today do we have a Conference Center? It’s no small thing to take pride in the fact that as a people, the Latter-day Saints are one of the few remaining subcultures in America that cherish oratory. When we settle in and focus on talking heads for hours at a time, whether in sacrament meeting or watching General Conference, we’re participating in a part of history that most all of our peers have long since abandoned.
Postman praises 19th century oratory as sounding like it was “pure print…lifted from the page.” Though there are certainly stylistic differences between our 19th and 20th century leaders—between, say, Orson Pratt and Neal A. Maxwell—this characterization could well still be applied to our leaders today. It’s a blessing that our Conference talks are largely delivered by men and women whose linguistic training was developed before the drastic lowering of educational expectations for America in the second half of the 20th century. Will General Authorities fifty years from now be as articulate? They might use a different idiom, but I hope they will be.
Another evidence of literacy among our elite echelon is the vast array of sources used in their work. It’s not unusual at all to see an Ensign article of Conference talk annotated with two or three dozen citations from throughout the Standard Works, which suggests a fluency with those texts borne of much more intense study than just passively sitting through Sunday School.
But beyond that, their personal reading is impressive, and I’m not just referring to President Monson’s penchant for English literature (though that is one of my favorite things about our prophet!). I recently read a chapter in Henry B. Eyring’s To Draw Closer To God, where he cited a study about the physiological effects of lying from Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts On Listening To Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. No research assistant provided that quote; it came from President Eyring’s own reading. I imagine President Eyring had read it because Lewis’s essays have a deep grounding in science, as does President Eyring himself. I picked up Lewis’s book from the library last week. It’s not bad; President Eyring has good taste.
In fact, after President Hinckley passed away earlier this year, I went back and read Standing For Something. After twenty pages, I was impressed by how many references he made. I started over and took notes on them. Pretty soon I had to divide my notes into multiple columns—scriptures, statistics, historical allusions, quotations from historical leaders, poets, and Shakespeare. This, for a mainstream work of didactic inspiration. Imagine if he’d been penning a scholarly tome!
If there is such great literacy among us, why the pessimistic query in the title of this post? Because, sadly, I worry that we are letting that part of our heritage, like the thrift and absolute loyalty of so many of the pioneers, erode.
Notice that my examples so far, even the contemporary ones, center around older generations. I’ve noticed in the homes of the many senior citizen members of the Church in which I’ve been that more often than not there is a little library area with a pleasant commingling of worn out sets of the classics and a hefty sampling of the best LDS publications from the middle of the last century. The homes of people under fifty now, even the active, educated ones, are much more likely to have a plasma screen TV and expensive decorations.
When I joined the Church in the early 1990’s, I remember feeling instantly comfortable at a Deseret Book, with its rows upon rows of thick books that fairly worshipped history, profound thought and language, and logical analysis and research. Maybe it’s a Las Vegas thing, but most of those titles are gone now, the rambling sections labeled “Church History” and “Old Testament” and “General Authorities” now compressed into only a few shelves, with the rest of the space now taken up by things that were hardly there at all fifteen years ago: “self-help” and “inspirational” titles and conventional, predictable fiction (mostly for women—for any other men worried that our gender has all but completely abdicated our literacy, novelist Ian McEwan’s little experiment provides a nervous prophetic tale). Oh yeah, and movies. Lots of movies. Mostly comedy.
There is one saving grace, though. As our Muslim friends render it in the Qur’an, we are “people of the book.” Our prophets have done us—and our literacy—a huge favor by ingraining in our collective mind the urgent priority of scripture study. The central role of The Book of Mormon in our lives is an amazing mental boon. Consequently, we’ve been able to stave off most of the collapse of literacy that has befallen the rest of America (so far). In college, a literature professor told me that he always knew who the religious kids in his class were, because they were the ones who came in already understanding symbolism, themes, and the difficult language of ancient writing. My own experience as a teacher yields the same conclusion: Mormon kids are more likely to be readers than other youth…but probably not as likely as they would have been twenty or thirty years ago.
So it’s not all gloom and doom, but any degree of loss here is to be lamented. I’m reminded of Omni 1:17, where we’re told that the people of Zarahemla’s “language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them, and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.” We might not end up morphing into a bunch of grunting apostates because we let our literacy fade away, but it certainly wouldn’t help. We’d be forsaking one of the most beloved aspects of life among our ancestors—language—and we’d be doing their memory a disservice by valuing so little what they loved so much.