Learning to read and learning by reading

The 9th-century Persian polymath Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, also known Rasis, teaching about cosmetics, Avignon, Bibliotheque Municipale, 1019 (circa 1250 AD, Paris)

Learning to read and learning by reading are not the same thing. In the first case, the objective is to learn how to read. Developing this skill is what learning to read is all about. It is the way into literacy and it always preceded writing. You can’t learn how to write before learning how to read unless by writing one means scribbling or imitating the pen-flow of another writer. There is a paradox here: if reading always precedes writing, then what did the first readers read, if nothing had been written before reading became a possibility?

Learning by reading, however, is different. It presupposes one has already learned how to read and is ready to move on to tackling knowledge through reading. Reading as opposed to hearing and seeing. Learning by hearing and seeing is the default condition in an oral environment. A disciple learns about making rope by listening to a master talk about it and making it. To learn by reading is to make the master speak through the book, vicariously showing through words what used to be heard by live voice and seen demonstrated through live-action.

When learning by hearing collides with learning by reading, as in the passage from an oral-based environment to a literacy-rich culture, words such as ‘lecture’, ‘lecturer’, ”lesson’, ‘auditor’ emerge – words which capture the ambivalence of hearing and reading. A lecture is a ‘reading’ or a ‘lesson’ (lectura in Latin, leçon in French) conducted by a ‘reader’ (lecturer -> lector),  who’s being audited (audire, to hear) by an audience.

Though different from each other, learning to read and learning by reading are two of the most crucial cultural disruptions our world has ever known. Learning to read meant getting ready to outsource knowledge from human memory-banks to artificial means of preservation, recalibrating our perception of time, the world and each other. Learning by reading disconnected the primaeval processes of cultural reproduction where learning was done in groups and through deep social interaction and created a solitary self-improvement mechanism through which group efficiency was achieved not necessarily through social exchange, but through the artifice of reading and learning from non-human masters.

One Comment Add yours

  1. ounoginiri says:

    Matiere a penser ! Thank you!

    Like

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