Five years ago I spent a delightful summer in the truly delightful country of Portugal, where I saw a state of things which once more set me wondering about the actual net value of universal literacy in any society. Portugal was densely illiterate; apparently no one knew what the volume of illiteracy was, for I got all sorts of estimates on it, running anywhere from fifty to eighty per cent of the population. I missed the customary roadsigns and roadside advertisements; in fact, advertisements of any kind were strangely infrequent; and I was told that they would not pay because too few people could read them. I noticed the absence of anything like what we call “popular literature,” the production whereof has become so gigantic an industry with us. Lisbon had a newspaper which seemed fairly prosperous. Knowing no Portuguese, I floundered through one issue with what help I could muster from Latin, French and Italian, and gathered a provisional notion that it was pretty good, though it appeared to be written for a degree of intelligence somewhat above the ordinary, rather than for popular consumption. Its methods of distribution also indicated this, as well as I could make them out. I already knew that Portugal, as a French authority says, had une petite élite extrémement brillante et cultivée, and the evidence was overwhelming that this was the only possible clientèle towards which publishers might look.
One consequence of this interested me particularly. Lisbon’s population comes to something like half a million, and it is a considerable retail trading-centre for the country at large. I was there at rather a bad moment for trade; goods were moving slowly just then, and the commercial exhibits were not especially impressive, except in two lines where they were indeed impressive—jewellery and books. Judging in relation to the volume of population and the volume of literacy, I have never seen so many, so well-stocked, and so handsome bookstores in any city. Judging in the same way, I calculated that in order to match Lisbon, New York would have to show very nearly as many bookstores as it used to show beer-saloons in the days before Prohibition.
To me the implications of this were obvious and striking. I saw, however, that, (to use our current jargon), the more socially-minded and forward-looking Portuguese disregarded them, and that the country was out to follow the fashion of modern republics since 1789 by pressing for an indiscriminate spread of literacy. I could find no evidence that the wisdom of this course had been challenged or even considered; apparently Mr. Jefferson’s estimate of universal literacy’s value was taken as axiomatic. I thought that instead of going in for this policy hand-over-head and sight-unseen, the Portuguese might have been wiser first to examine it thoroughly by the light which the experience of other societies could throw on it; the experience of our own society especially, since we have been most heavily committed to that policy and have done most with it. I did not suggest this to my Portuguese friends, however; my opinion was not asked, nor would I have given it if it had been asked. I had no wish to wet-blanket the amiable and kindly Portuguese, nor did I have any exalted notion that I could or should enlighten them, least of all that it was my good-neighbourly duty to try; and a person who feels no such stirrings within him is a superfluous man in any Kulturkampf.
It is one of my oddest experiences that I have never been able to find any one who would tell me what the net social value of a compulsory universal literacy actually comes to when the balance of advantage and disadvantage is drawn, or wherein that value consists. The few Socratic questions which on occasion I have put to persons presumably able to tell me have always gone by the board. These persons seemed to think, like Protagoras on the teaching of virtue, that the thing was so self-evident and simple that I should know all about it without being told; but in the hardness of my head or heart I still do not find it so. Universal literacy helps business by extending the reach of advertising and increasing its force; and also in other ways. Beyond that I see nothing on the credit side. On the debit side, it enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel and debauch such intelligence as is in the power of the vast majority of mankind to exercise. There can be no doubt of this, for the evidence of it is daily spread wide before us on all sides. More than this, it makes many articulate who should not be so, and otherwise would not be so. It enables mediocrity and sub-mediocrity to run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste. In a word, it puts into a people’s hands an instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and the mischief thus wrought is very great. My observations leave me no chance of doubt about the side on which the balance of social advantage lies, but I do not by any means insist that it does lie there.
– Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943), p. 47-9