Widespread Literacy: Key to a Functioning Democracy?

Dateline Scotland, UK, Summer 2022

After more than two years of virtual living without benefit of vacation, we landed in the UK for holiday. It created an opportunity to read (“Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis,’’ by Jared Diamond) and explore history up close and personal.

Diamond’s book explores crisis and change in seven countries over many decades: Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the USA. A notable quote is: “Fundamental to any functioning democracy are widespread literacy, recognition of the right to oppose government policies, tolerance of different points of view, acceptance of being outvoted, and government protection of those without political power.”

These words evoke the notion of the Scottish Reformation, a process that led Scotland in the late 1500s to grow a Protestant tradition and move away from Catholicism. It led to a commitment to universal education. Schools were built and the university system was reformed.

“Upheaval” and Reformation created a fitting backdrop for exploring the area around Stirling, the former center of Scotland, and to visit the nearby Innerpeffray Library. Innerpeffray is the first free lending library in Scotland dating to 1680. The library kept careful records and today many people visit to learn what their relatives from centuries ago were reading and learning. Lara Haggerty is the Keeper of Books, a title associated with the library for hundreds of years. She oversees the 5,000 titles still managed in the library. As Lara points out, “Scotland became a real literary nation. This place was a little spark that started the flame burning.”

Lara shared some wonderful stories with us. We held some very old books, including “Cookery and Pastry’’ as taught by Mrs. MacIver (1787).
Reading that early cookbook, I should not have been surprised that it did not include cooking temperatures and times, since cooking was not done in devices where you could specify the temperature. It was surprising that recipes did not include quantities of ingredients, and the typesetting was strange. It seemed that there were two versions of the letter “s.” One of them was much like this “s” and one more akin to an “f”. Lara explained that it was a response to early printing presses where the traditional “s” had a tendency to attract blobs of ink and become illegible, especially when adjacent to another “s” or “e” or “a.” The larger “f” form did not suffer that problem, so this innovation made books more legible.

Their records allowed them to learn that the most popular books dealt with history, and many people were frequent borrowers. She shared the history of one borrower, John Barclay, who as a young man read history, went on to begin study as a minister, and then shifted his focus to natural science. He ultimately became a professor in the university system. As Lara and I talked, I imagined a borrower bringing a book home and during the month or so that books typically were outstanding, the borrower and the family would have read, perhaps together, perhaps out-loud. They would have discussed the material and have become the educated electorate needed for Scotland’s reformation and for Diamond’s notion of an effective democracy.

When we visited, they were celebrating innovation, and had on display a working model of a passive heat-dissipating device, a close-cycle heat engine, developed by one of their readers and patented in 1816. It was created by Robert
Stirling, hence its name, “Stirling Engine.” Over the years, refinement and redesign have made it faster, better and cheaper. It is now an element for temperature management in some laptops.

And of course, the very existence of Innerpeffray arose because of the invention of the printing press. The printing press was introduced around 1450 and was adopted rapidly. Jeremiah Dittmar of the London School of Economics has demonstrated that about half of the 100 largest European cities adopted printing technology. Early on it was a craft and early cities that adopted it not only grew the printing activity but had significantly higher, broad economic growth than non-adopting cities. Indeed, Innerpeffray Library was only possible because the printing press had enabled large-scale production of books at “affordable” prices. By 1680, David Drummand, the founder, had collected a library which could and did support the reading needs of a community.

The Scottish Reformation and Innerpeffray Library seem to exemplify Diamond’s quote above: “Fundamental to any functioning democracy are widespread literacy, recognition of the right to oppose government policies, tolerance of different points of view, acceptance of being outvoted, and government protection of those without political power.” At UConn, and in the School of Business, we champion free inquiry and access to information.

It was great to explore how those themes played out hundreds of years ago. Today, there are those who want to ban books and control information, but Innerpeffray exemplifies the right idea: share the books, encourage reading and exploring ideas. Who knows from whom the next revolutionary ideas will come? Reading and debating will prime the pump. I am privileged to work with faculty, staff, students, and alumni who believe in ideas, and in investing today for a better tomorrow.

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