– by Dr. Karen M. Gray
To be a conscious human being, is to be a learning individual. There really isn’t any way to be actively living and not be learning. But how we learn, and what we learn, varies dramatically. What I find particularly significant are the things we choose to do because they enrich our inner lives and add to the breadth and depth of what we are experiencing and understand. Among the best of these “learning tools” is what I have come to think of as literate lifelong learning.
In Greco-Roman and most of subsequent European culture, being literate meant not simply that one knew how to read, but that one was widely read in the humanities (languages, literature, history, the arts, etc.); as well as the core conceptual content of mathematics and science as they existed in each era. In other words, a literate person was someone who read extensively, not just from the literary pool of their own time, but also in the greatest works of the past.
This understanding of what it means to be a literate person is one that I still value. Yet our situation today is very different from that of the literati of the past. Theirs was a time when there existed an extremely well defined catalogue of great works. And until-modern times, this meant education focused on achieving understanding of such works by studying grammar, logic, and especially the use of language; for it is the nuances of language that make words powerful, precise, and deeply meaningful.
Unfortunately, today’s educational system does not attempt to give students a broad experience of the classic writings of the past, or even a mastery of language usage. Instead it focuses on providing a very practical level of skills for managing the normal demands of contemporary life—which is surely essential! However, for most contemporary students, it is insufficient to lead to the pleasures and benefits of true, mature literacy.
In contrast, the mature reader who explores throughout his or her life not only a selection of the best writings of our day, but many of the most influential and enjoyable works of the past, increases their insight from the depths of human history and the commonalities of human experience. In effect, they end up sharing their life journey with the likes of Cicero or Chaucer, Plato or Kant—or other such minds of their choice!
I also find that truly literate readers develop an enriched vocabulary of not just words but also symbols, mythological and historical references, and famous sayings and excerpted wisdom. This means that they are prepared to think and to express themselves in ways that are precisely and richly meaningful that reveal an ever-expanding linguistic flexibility and skill. Their favorite characters, stories, and insights from their reading enhances their communication with others even as it strengthens their own understanding of the very structures of their own inner life, of human existence in general, and of the world at large.
A final, and perhaps most delightful, characteristic of today’s literate readers is that they share their literary experiences and journey with others. They talk about books and authors, stories and ideas, and often inspire each other to read certain works or explore a new subject or writer. These conversations, and the time spent in such encounters, always carries one beyond the repetitive nature of everyday existence into new adventures.
There is something possibly unique about the situation of the mature reader today, however. Namely, all the ways in addition to reading—though never in place of it—that we now have to explore the vast reservoir of the masterpieces of human writing. Drama brings much of it to life on stage or in film, and various media provide introductions and even sometimes in-depth experiences to what was only available in the past in personally acquired books. Travel too is easier than ever and can allow us to experience places we might only known through reading.
And finally, many formal lifelong learning experiences are designed to give people a truly enjoyable literacy in specific areas of history, literature, culture, language, and the evolution of human thought. All these become for the truly literate, a jumping off point for deeper exploration on their own in the world of books and other literary formats. It’s a startling thought today that there simply may never have been such a time as this for the lifelong learner who is truly literate. To live that life now is, I suspect, more fun, more diverse, and more psychologically fulfilling and linguistically enriching than it has ever been.
I want to close with that benefit of being a literate lifelong learner that I personally value most highly. It is the way that reading great literature provides me with an alternative to the addictive aspects of popular entertainment and superficial information media. What it opens to me is, quite simply, a universe incompatible with the cultural narcissism and intellectual myopia that otherwise threatens. Lifelong literacy is the most powerful way I know to vastly expand imagination, thinking, and learning. And it does so in a manner that adds immeasurably to the satisfactions and pleasures of life as well as to those inner strengths and perspectives that maintain life’s quality even in times of great difficulty and suffering.
Join Karen Gray this summer for her course An Epic Romp Through Four Very Old Epics and explore some of the greatest literature of the past, beginning in the Ancient Near East with the epic of Gilgamesh, continuing to the greatest of the Greek epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey; and finishing with Beowulf. This series contains not just great stories, but writings seminal to our own culture and time. Click here for the full course description, times, and dates.
Karen Gray, Ph.D. received her S.T.B. degree from Harvard Divinity School and her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh. A woman of many interests and scholarly pursuits, Karen retired after 20 years with the Smithsonian Associates designing adult study tours.