This video explains one of literacy’s most important effects. I’ve long been puzzled by the “Long Peace” we’ve been experiencing since the end of the second World War. Despite what our media tells us, the world is much more peaceful than it has ever been. There has been very little war between great powers since WWII, and the pace of civil wars has slackened greatly since the end of the Cold War as well. Even more importantly, the great powers have not been able to exploit this period of peace to beat up on everybody else they way they have in the past.
Europe experienced a great period of peace from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the Crimean War in the 1850’s. Even that war was a relatively quick, if costly, break in a period of peace stretching up until World War I (1914). During that period of time however, Europe extended over the whole world, crushing indigenous peoples and empires all around the globe. It was peace for Europe, and suffering for everybody else. This time it has been different. This video lays out why Literacy has a lot more to do with this than is currently recognized.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Reading is important. That’s not a controversial thing to say. But we don’t emphasize how important literacy is to the history of the modern world. Last time I pointed out how the most important legacy of Europe’s Protestant Reformation may have been the inadvertent creation of the space for mass literacy. Today I’d like to talk a bit more about why literacy, the ability to read and write, is so important.
There are good arguments that other things are more important to development. Modern life wouldn’t be possible without the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. But it’s worth mentioning that many of the engineers that built the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution were from Scotland. They were the product of a century or two of literacy promotion by the Scottish reformed Church.
Literacy developed slowly at the beginning. Just because people were encouraged to read the bible it didn’t necessarily mean that they could write. As recently as the mid 1800s, only 10% of people worldwide could read. Mostly Literate Countries in Northern Europe and North America had a tremendous head-start, and ended up taking over the world.
That dominance is now fading, very quickly in historical terms. I think that has a lot to do with literacy. In the 19th century mass schooling slowly spread across Southern and Eastern Europe. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the rest of the world caught up very quickly. The development of a culture of mass literacy took centuries in Protestant Europe. Most of the rest of the world has built one in less than 100 years.
The effects of this can already be seen in the distribution of power worldwide. On almost every measure, the United States is much more powerful than the British Empire was, and it has historically had a lot less competition. But we haven’t been able to actually take any new territory since the late 19th century. We like to pretend that’s because we’re a better kind of Empire, but tell that to the Mexicans, or the Filipinos.
I think this difference comes down to the fact that the British were dealing with largely pre-literate populations. For an illiterate peasant in 1750, the British rulers were just a new set of gangster overlords. They kicked out the old thugs. Whatever. Same as it ever was. In the 20th and 21st centuries though, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, had a very different picture of what was happening. Literacy provided a mass culture, a positive form of nationalism, and the sense that they had the right to run their own country. Literacy allows people to beat Imperial aggressors on their own terms. The survival of movements for Tibetan and Uighur independence from China probably has a lot to do with this dynamic as well. Literacy brings freedom. And so much more.
We’re only at the beginning of this process. Many countries are only half a century into the era of mass literacy. The world is about to get a lot better.
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