Please join my campaign for illiteracy

Begin today. Find a child in your neighborhood, and unlearn them reading.

“[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it; they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” Plato, Phaedrus.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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5 Responses to Please join my campaign for illiteracy

  1. “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”– Shakespeare


  2. Kleiner says:

    I have been amazed at how quickly my 4 year old daughter can memorize things. Since she does not rely on the “reminder” of writing, she simply focuses in on it and soaks it up. I do “daddy school” with her every morning (kiddy latin, reading old fairie tales and mythology, the Bible, stories about ancient Egypt and Greece, etc). We are also memorizing poetry, and I thought she would learn one a week (4-12 line poems, mainly by Robert Louis Stevenson) but instead she learns one a day.

    That said, I wonder about the scope of Plato’s claim here. When I think of the Trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric), I think it best to understand the aim of it as teaching learning and thinking skills (the Trivium itself is not learning, it is preparation for future learning). Each part of the Trivium seems connected to an age – grammar to young kids who are good at rote memorization, dialectic to middle school kids who start to be capable of abstract argument, and rhetoric for high school.

    Sticking to the remembering theme, this is most pronounced in the grammatical stage (where learning by heart is easy). This is true of all kids (mine is not unique). One should, in this stage, learn by heart the grammar of language, beauty, history, theology, science, etc. But this is not actually thinking. Rather all of the Trivium simply teaches the tools of learning, it is not itself learning or thinking. You would only think it was learning and thinking if you thought all there was to learning and thinking was remembering. Of course, that is what Plato thinks. But I think we have many good reasons for thinking he is wrong about that, and so ends up treating the very earliest stages of learning (the choral repetition or “parrot” stage) as being normative for all of learning and thinking.

    Real thinking only occurs when you apply the skills of learning (acquired during the Trivium phase) to the Quadrivium. Plato knew this, as he held up the Quadrivium in the Republic as the real education of philosophers. But the question is whether the latter stages of thinking take on the quality and character of the earliest stages. I am inclined to say no, as important as those early stages are to the process.

    All of that said, I rely too heavily on wikipedia and other such things. So if Plato’s point is that reading/writing can be a crutch, he is right.


  3. Huenemann says:

    I also wonder if writing has changed our concept of what it is to memorize something. We think to memorize it is to get it word-for-word, as if you are reading it. Maybe memorizing, for Plato, meant understanding something so thoroughly that you could relay the content to someone while also preserving some of the style. That would require some of the trivium skills, but some of the quadrivium as well. It would require listening very carefully and thinking through what you hear, and paying attention to tone and style.


    • Kleiner says:

      Good point. Part of classical eduction, at least as I understand it, is that you expose your children to good and even genuinely great works at a young age (in the Trivium stage) along with the grammars of Latin, theology, aesthetics, etc. in order that they can think beautifully (with certain styles, etc) themselves down the road. It is for this reason that I really do not like the Junie B. Jones childrens books. They are written from the point of view of a kindergartener, and so are chock full of lousy grammar.

      Still, your point is well taken. I have been trying to memorize the high school poetry in the book I am using with my kids (The Harp and the Laurel Wreath). Instead of just knowing what one of Paradise Lost is about, I should just know some of it (that is, be able to relay it both in content but also style).


  4. bjk says:

    Is it possible that Plato memorized his own dialogues? Maybe he composed them while walking outside the city (like in the Phaedrus) in dialog with an interlocutor who would play the role of Glaucon or Theaetetus. Instead of writing and rewriting, like we do, he would compose and recompose the dialog while having the same discussion over and over with a student, in order to work out the kinks. Or maybe he composed and memorized them in his head, the soul in dialog with itself, so to speak. We know that Homer was memorized (by performers like Ion) and oral poetry was often improvised, so why not a Platonic dialogue by Plato himself?


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