Friday, October 19, 2012


by Edd Doerr

Two books from the '80s are relevant today: E.D. Hirsch, Jr's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know (1987), and Robert Logan's The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization (1986). Hirsch writes that there is a basic set of information, facts, expressions, etc that every adult needs to have in order to function in today's world, a common core of knowledge, if you will. Hirsch shows that the wide gap between the well off and the poor inhibits cultural literacy, and says that we ought to close that gap through educational policy. As Hirsch is a conservative, it's too bad that today's conservatives pay no attention to this wisdom, preferring instead  to defund and privatize education and divert public funds to special interest private schools, most of which are run by conservative religious interests.

Logan's book's title says it all. The phonetic alphabet, developed 3,000 years ago , is what made our civilization possible. The printing press, developed shortly before 1500, then made possible the rise of science, widespread literacy, the industrial revolution, democracy, and modern humanism.

The only alternative system of writing to the phonetic alphabet is the Chinese/Japanese pictograph system, which, Logan shows, is not conducive to logical thinking or science. He  admits that China was technologically far more advanced than Europe, until, that is, the advent of the printing press, when the West shot ahead. With China now catching up with the West industrially and economically -- by using European languages for the tasks not possible with pictographic writing -- who knows where all this will lead.

I am reminded of historian Noel Perrin's fascinating book Giving up the Gun, the story of how the Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan around 1560. Within ten years Japan was producing more and better firearms than any country in Europe. By 1640 the shogunate realized that a peasant with a gun could kill a samurai at over 100 yards., terribly disruptive in a tradition bound society.  So the shogunate collected and warehoused all the firearms until after the US opened Japan to trade after our Civil War. During the  Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, when the Japanese ran short of weapons they opened the warehouses, rifled the barrels of the ancient guns, and used them to shoot Russians and win the war.

I think of this stuff when I drive my Subaru or Honda.

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