In a city center somewhere in the ancient Greek world—let’s say Epidaurus in the sixth century BC—a religious festival is in progress. The mood is festive, buoyed by the free barbecue that religious sacrifices occasioned for the entire local populace. Animal sacrifices were ostensibly for the gods, but it was the humans who benefited tangibly from the opulent community cookouts. The gods largely just enjoyed the smell. And now, bellies full, the moment everyone has been waiting for has arrived: entertainment.  

A bard begins singing in a clear voice, accompanying himself on a lyre. Dramatically inflecting the familiar lines, he sings a tale well known to all. Even so, it always is a delight; besides, every bard tells it just a little differently. If it’s Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey the recitation will take around twenty-four hours in total, with the crowds dispersing at dark and returning on the morrow. But return they will, that much is certain. While few of them can read, they delight in these occasional festival performances and look forward to them each time.  

Fast-forward a little over a century. It is 430 BC in Athens, and the leading democratic statesman of the day, Pericles, gives the Funeral Oration, commemorating the war dead at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. The reason his speech survived is because one of the thousands in the audience that day, the historian Thucydides, not only heard the speech, but remembered it so well that he could transcribe it down from memory later. This might seem impressive to us. It wasn’t for the Athenians, who were used to turning up regularly for dramatic performances and public speeches, which people remembered in detail years later. These works, heard rather than read, formed the shared literature of the Athenian democracy. 

And yet, when we speak today of the wonders of Greek literature, the very term we use is misleading. After all, “litterae,” Latin for letters, whence the term “literature” derives, were only invented sometime in the eighth century BC, when the Greeks adapted their own alphabet, borrowing heavily from the Phoenicians. The Homeric epics, composed orally, were not written down until sometime in the sixth century BC in Athens. Then, once writing existed, few were literate enough to make use of it. Still, this did not hamper their ability to create, maintain, and appreciate a highly developed culture of storytelling that valued the beauty and complexity of narratives reflective of both the intellectual and emotional elements of the human experience. 

These achievements of pre-literate Greek artists came to mind as I read Beth McMurtrie’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Is This The End of Reading?” In some ways, it may appear to be yet another one in a long series of (alas) warranted jeremiads on the decline of literacy in our society. Thirteen years ago, for instance, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book, Academically Adrift, bemoaned the decline in students’ ability to write. Arum and Roksa’s solution was: Make them write more, not less.  

Except, as McMurtrie’s conversations with professors now show, this approach would no longer fly. It’s not just that students aren’t willing to do the reading (or writing) required for classes—although that is the case. But it’s more that they aren’t capable of basic comprehension—not only in reading, but also in listening to instructions, lectures, and other communiqués.  

This is an insidious problem with significant repercussions for our society. Historians traditionally have defined cultures as being either oral or written. Each one of these categories has specific features when it comes to communication and absorption of information.  

In oral cultures, as in the Greek world until in the fifth century BC when writing became commonplace, we see the flourishing of poetry, including epics that took twenty-four hours to recite—all from memory. The features of such cultures included incredible attention spans, as audiences could listen, enjoy, and absorb such recitations orally. Furthermore, such cultures usually trained individuals’ memory, making it into a collective memory. It was common for people to memorize large swathes of poetry, family genealogies, religious texts, and more, handing them down orally for centuries. In other oral traditions, such as in Africa, we find the same phenomenon at work. The magnificent epic of Medieval Mali, Sundiata, was not written down until 1960, over seven-hundred years after the king on whom the epic is based lived.  

In written cultures, the shift to written documents does not occur instantaneously or seamlessly. Elements of oral culture continue for a long time generally after writing is available—as we see in Classical Athens, whose citizens, like Thucydides, continued to enjoy public speeches, recitations, and performances. Reading (and writing) was a useful tool for preserving information, but it was generally not something done for pleasure. After all, before the printing press, books were copied by hand and were therefore prohibitively expensive. Still, people in all periods of antiquity were able to enjoy stories told, poems recited, hymns sung, and (after the first century AD) the Bible read aloud. In such a largely oral culture, much of the European Middle Ages lived. 

This brings us back full circle to the beleaguered college students whose inability to ingest information, whether written or oral, McMurtrie documents in her Chronicle piece. The students she describes decidedly don’t fit the characteristics of a written culture. The problem is, they don’t fit the characteristics of an oral culture either. Rather, powered by the latest modern technologies of smart phones and AI, they are steadily regressing to a pre-human state of cognition. Unable to receive sophisticated information in any form at all, what is left for them? Profound anxiety and loneliness. 

This loss of culture, both oral and written, has significant implications for how any human society, let alone a democracy, functions. How do you communicate with other flesh and blood people with neither the ability to read nor listen deeply? This is a civilization-destroying kind of crisis. Without the possibility of deep, meaningful communication across society, there will be fewer deep friendships, fewer relationships, less healthy marriages, and more intergenerational strife as communication between parents and  children becomes harder. There will be less collaboration beyond our immediate circles. All of these activities rely on effective speaking and listening, on remembering information, on understanding people and their ideas, on holding multiple ideas in one’s mind and discerning patterns or conflicts between them.  

There is significance, as the early Christians knew well, to the idea of God as Word that became flesh. Words can be transcendent. Words are how God communicates with us—especially, today, through the written word. And words, written or spoken, are how we express our love for God and for other people. Without them, we lose not only culture, but our very humanity. 

Indeed, this loss of humanity that is unfolding in front of our very eyes is only further abetted by the hollow solutions readily available. Can’t find a real person to date? AI girlfriends are here for you. Can’t make friends on your own? AI friends to the rescue. Can’t do the reading to write your college papers or job application letters? You guessed it, yet again, AI can do it. 

But the nature of human beings as flesh and blood made in God’s image insists on this truth: We have been created for relationship—first and foremost with God, but also with other people. And so, the solution for the literacy crisis in our society can only be relational. Normalize reading aloud with others again—with friends, your children, other family members. And cultivate friendships and joy, characterized by involved conversations. This is not easy, and it will take time, especially for those unfamiliar with such practices. But it will be worth it.