Functionally illiterate

Illustration of George Mattis

We all know someone who seems to know way more than us. I can think of a whole universe of people who I admire and stand in awe of the things they (seem to) know. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking they must be way smarter than me.

Of course, the smart thing is not true, and it’s a poor use of time to compare yourself with others. But the knowing more thing? Yes, that’s always true. Someone always will know more. But even they didn’t know at one point. They learned from those before them.

General James Mattis pointed out in his autobiography that “Reading is an honor and a gift,” he explains, “from a warrior or a historian who—a decade or a thousand decades ago—set aside time to write.” Yet many people spurn this gift and still consider themselves educated. “If you haven’t read hundreds of books,” Mattis says, “you’re functionally illiterate.”

In addition to “read hundreds of books” in this age you could also add “Googled specific topics, searched out YouTube instructions, inquired for references on Twitter” etc, etc.

I’m “functionally illiterate” in a lot of areas and I can appreciate the advice to learn from others. We’re surrounded by professors, each of us having many degrees in legitimate crafts, some of us even PhDs. The fact that the number of things I don’t know and will never know will always tower over what I do know isn’t frightening, though but I’d be lying if I didn’t feel overwhelmed at times.

How to change a light fixture, prepare garden plants for the winter, submit taxes in the UK, file a complaint with my local council member, build a shelter, practice basic self-defense, fix my bike chain, bake edible gluten-free bread, the list goes on.

It can feel hard to chip away at this with our ingrained habits, daily responsibilities, social addictions, and general aptitude for laziness (myself included). I try to shift routines. I try to devote 20 minutes a day to practicing a thing, or reading or watching something new. I try to note scroll a feed, instead I force myself to search.

But sometimes we can give each other a break. Just knowing that we’re all functionally illiterate, and that’s ok, is good enough as well.

Comments welcome!

%d bloggers like this: