This essay was originally presented by George Steiner as the Eighth Athenaeum Lecture on 15 September 2005. “A New Literacy” was first published in Great Britain by the Athenaeum, Pall Mall, London, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
The very notion of “literacy” is inseparable from the history of monasticism and of church schools after the decay of the Roman Empire in western Europe. To be “literate” signified the ability to read Scripture, to form letters on the page. This capacity defined the cleric and the clerk, these two designations being closely related. Some familiarity with Latin, though often in hybrid and transitional forms and, only very rarely, with classical Greek attached to ecclesiastical, legal, bureaucratic, and medical competence. The literary elite, the “men of letters” in the most pragmatic sense, assured the preservation of ancient civilization, a transmission qualified, corrected by Christian revelation. Literacy identified a “clerisy” and the ideological and political power-relations which made possible the governance of church and state. It is from this legacy that all modern Europe concepts and usages of literacy—where “modern” simply means postmedieval—derive.
This inheritance brought with it a blurring of the term. It took on at least two principal meanings. At the more elevated level, literacy came to stand for the shared communitas of the learned, of the privileged owners of the instruments of reading and writing. It underwrote, itself a suggestive image, the great age of the private library as it extends from Erasmus and Montaigne to the twentieth century. It comprised the producers and consumers of “literature”—note the source and content of that word—the lawmakers and divines, the scientists both natural and philosophical, the political thinkers and historians. Belles lettres and “bookmen,” “readers” in the academic hierarchy (the title persists in the British higher education to this day), correspondents in the public and private life across the European civilitas—”letter-writers”—are categories which illustrate the breadth and centrality of the word. Very gradually, higher culture spread downward. Great libraries became public. Following on the Enlightenment, on the French and Industrial Revolutions, on Victorian social meliorism, schooling and the skills of literacy which it entailed came to extend to the population at large. The role of printing and of mass diffusion of printed matter in this “osmosis” is both essential and evident.
But let us be careful. In this wider sense, “literacy” was often minimal. Even where they had attended rudimentary instruction, the vast majority of the agricultural and laboring classes, of women in menial or domestic employment, of adolescent school-leavers, were literate only in the most superficial and restricted sense. They could make out elementary texts at best. Their writing skills were virtually nonexistent. What books did they read, let alone own? Social historians continue to explore this opaque material. But the pointers are graphic. Over one third of French conscripts during 1914-18 had to be trained in rough and basic reading skills. Today, over one half of recruits into the British army are classified as having the reading skills of children aged ten or less. In the United States, the purveyors of mass media and of advertisements are trained to avoid the use of any dependent clause and, so far as possible, of words of more than two syllables. The question of whether the majority of those who purchase medication are able to read the labels and instruction that go with them has reached critical urgency. In the so-called “Third World,” in parts of Asia and Latin America, but also in the Mediterranean regions of Europe, literacy remains intermittent and superficial. Such impositions of mass literacy as were enacted in Turkey or the Soviet Union were the direct result of a despotic political will.
In tandem with the complex, always partial deployment of literacy came the exponential development of the sciences, theoretical and applied, pure and technological. This development dates back to the pre-Socratics and to Plato’s emphasis on geometry. But the breakthrough can be ascribed to Galileo’s postulate that the language of nature, of substantive reality when it is grasped and ordered by human reason, is that of mathematics. It was the almost fantastic enrichment of mathematical means and models which empowered the history of cosmology and of physics from Copernicus and Kepler to Newton and Einstein. Mathematical statistics informed Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rapidly, moreover, mathematical and metamathematical codes organized the structure, the aims of economics, of logic, of demography. No systematic meteorology or genetics, no experimental psychology or behavioral science without algebraic and topological tools. Even disciplines long regarded as innocent of mathematics, such as linguistics or social history or anthropology became increasingly dependent on mathematical verifications and concepts (such awkward designations as “econometrics” or “cliometrics” tell of this ubiquity).
Inevitably, the relevant level of mathematical competence rose with every generation. First-year undergraduates are required to familiarize themselves with algebraic manipulations which would have disconcerted Einstein, let alone Gauss or Hardy. Serious students of economics, of information theory, of actuarial statistics, operate with concepts reserved, not long ago, to the domain of the pure mathematician. Considering the imperialism of the mathematical in the life of the sciences, of technology, of philosophic logic, one has the impression of an internalized power, of rage for acquisition like none other. As Galileo and Descartes professed, a body of knowledge, a harvest of insight, only becomes a science, a progressive discipline when it can, to a greater or lesser degree be mathematicized.
The consequence has been the “two cultures” debate so illuminatingly recalled by Professor George Porter in his 1999 Athenaeum Lecture. Yet it seems to me that in all the discussions which C. P. Snow initiated, an absolutely crucial point has been overlooked. It is that of an arrow of time. Virtually by definition, science and technology move forward; their tomorrow is even richer and more encompassing than their today. Even a mediocre scientist is working on an upward escalator if and when he is a participant in a qualified team or laboratory. The humanist looks ever backward in the overwhelming proportion of his practice. He teaches, he reads, he returns to, he comments on the literatures, the fine arts, the music of the past. His are the archives, the museums, the opera houses and, for some ninety percent of the performances, the symphony halls and chamber music recitals. Logically, inductively there is absolutely no reason why a new Shakespeare or Michelangelo or Beethoven should not appear on the scene tomorrow morning, why the next Goethe should not be drafting his unprecedented Faust in the house next door. But how many of us truly believe in such an epiphany? Resist facile arguments for some kind of Spenglerian decline, cancel out Valéry’s warning that all civilizations are mortal, involve yourself receptively with modernism, with conceptual art, with electronic and aleatory music. Still, the intuition nags. The humanities in the West are the virtuosities of twilight or, to borrow a famous tag, it is “closing time in our gardens.”
The reasons for this sunset, if sunset it be, elude any confident diagnosis. It may be that tiredness is a psychic and collective as well as a physiological phenomenon. An enormity of past history, in both senses of the words, weighs on Europe. In thought, in the arts, precedents can both inspire and be lame. Bent over a blank page, Keats wonders how he can inscribe the word “tragedy” with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare, as it were, looking over his shoulder. Note the cunning of recuperation in so many of our modern masters: Joyce enlists Homer; Picasso literally anthologizes the development of western art from the cave paintings to Velasquez and Manet; Stravinsky plays metamorphic changes on renaissance, baroque, and eighteenth-century models; Pound’s Cantos are a final, almost desperate attempt at inventory before the museum shuts down. Historians estimate at between seventy and one hundred million the number of those done to death by war, famine, deportation, forced labor, and deliberate genocide between August 1914 and May 1945 in Western Europe and the European portions of Russia. Both world wars, whatever their global extension, were European civil wars. Current recovery is a somewhat macabre miracle. A return to major humanistic performance would be even more so.
The question of literacy, of what “literacy” today should or could signify, now comports a new and in many regards overwhelming factor. I feel tempted to call it a “third culture.” It is that of the electronic and computational revolution as it has flowered out of the theoretical and practical encoding and code-breaking of the Second World War. The perfection of moveable type by Gutenberg and his followers represented an immensely influential acceleration of handwriting. For some eighty years after Gutenberg, manuscripts continued to flourish. The revolution which has generated the modern computer, the Internet, the global Web, the planetary dissemination of information via artificial satellites, the theoretically unlimited storage and reference means of memory banks and retrieval (Google), is of a far greater power and consequence. A new technique always entails a new metaphysics , said Hegel. But “technique” is here an inadequate term. The computer world—observe the uncanny speed of its development—is one in which absolutely fundamental constants such as knowledge, information, communication, indeed the brain itself are being radically altered and revalued. The conjecture, advanced by leading cosmologists and neurophysiologists, that our universe and our cortex can best be understood or “imaged” as computer-designed, as synapses in a “web of webs,” has speculative force beyond science fiction.
Day by day, “computer literacy” is becoming the rite de passage into the adult world. In the industrialized West, computer training begins virtually at the primary school level, and an ever-increasing competence is required for any access to higher education. The computer is the indispensable instrument in business and finance, in government and medical administration, in technology and media. Its advance into private life, into the home, looks to be irresistible. No previous artifact or invention will have exercised the shaping impact on everyday human existence registered by the PC and the laptop, by interactive communication on the Internet. The electronic screen has become the mirror of man. Already it seems likely that those communities and individuals (I am very much among them) incapable of mastering the processor and the keyboard, the search mechanism and its “surfing,” will be relegated to a new under-class, to be helots of oblivion.
Arrestingly, this “third culture” partakes both of the humanities and the sciences. Its roots lie in the mathematical logic and electro-magnetic equations. But its informational content and referential reach encompass every semantic construct, every linguistic application be they in literature or the study of the fine arts or epistemology.
The hope of preserving or revitalizing humanistic literacy in any traditional sense seems to me unrealistic. That literacy, that dominion of the classical, belonged to an elite. The democratization of schooling and political society runs directly counter to the Platonic ideals enacted in the class systems and hierarchies of education in Europe’s ancien régime or in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Receptivity to high culture is far from universal. It can be nurtured and multiplied but only to a limited degree. The study of Greek irregular verbs or of Horace’s metrics will always have engaged the few. In a more general and not altogether evident sense, the ability to take in arguments of the first order, to apprehend and respond to a Platonic dialogue, a tractate by Spinoza, a treatise by Kant, characterizes a minority, a certain mandarinate. This is true as well of the enjoyment of serious literature and, most markedly in the modern vein, of music. A fog of political hypocrisy and pedagogic cant shrouds this entire issue. Polytechnics and vocational institutes are rebaptized as “universities.” The ruthless dumbing down of the media in this country, once the envy of the civilized world, is masked by appeals to the rights and pleasures of populism. In short: The contradictions between minority values of literacy as that concept prevailed from classical antiquity to the suicidal follies of the First World War on the one hand and the coming to power of the masses and the mass media on the other, is radical and, at decisive levels, intractable.
The inability of the high culture to defend its corner, what has been called “the treason of the clerics,” stems from a grim, if often suppressed insight. Twentieth-century barbarism sprang from within the heartland of Europe culture, from the very center of the philosophic, aesthetic, and classical education. The death camps were not built in the Gobi Desert. And when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, philosophic thought proved not only largely impotent but often collaborative with despotism and massacre. The actual designation literae humaniores rang hollow.
After more than fifty years of teaching great literature and philosophic texts, I cannot dismiss from my mind a haunting possibility. I call it “the Cordelia paradox.” As one comes from reading King Lear, from watching a performance, from attempting to grasp and evaluate the experience, however inadequately, the cry in the poetry, on the stage, possesses our consciousness. The fiction overwhelms any “reality principle” (Freud’s rubric). The outcry of tortured Lear over Cordelia blots out the world. We do not hear the cry in the street, or if we do hear it, we do not listen to it, let alone act in response. Far from humanizing our sensibility, as Matthew Arnold or F. R. Leavis proclaimed, the great fictions, the works of high art, the spellbinding melodies, inhibit our answerability to immediate human distress and social injustice. In some almost numbing way, they dehumanize. Whether it is feasible to study, to internalize and echo the agony of Cordelia so as to strengthen, to render more concrete our moral and civic resources, is a question to which I have no answer. Tolstoy ruled that it could not be done.
Underlying the crisis in the humanities, be it political and social or psychological, is the decline of religious faith, which I adduced at the outset of these remarks. Traditional literacy and the culture it engendered were indeed anchored in theological intimation and values. As our civilization (what right have we to that word today?) slips from its theological moorings, literacy is cast loose. In the facile slogan of what is called “post-modernism,” “anything goes.” This does not mean that we shall cease from reading books—some of them worthwhile—or visiting museums or building concert halls. Of course we shall. Even if, increasingly, we read via the Internet or look at art via holographic reproductions or what will soon be three-dimensional electronic reproductions. What it does mean, is that such pleasures will compete, on a shared scale of prestige, with sport, with mass entertainment of the most brutal and deafening kind. The serious bookstore will compete, on absurdly uneven terms, with the pornography emporium next door. Even to Dante, to Goethe, to Blake may come to apply that trivializing French idiom: ce n’est que de la littérature.
“What then shall we do?”, as Lenin famously asked. What can we do in a situation in which an estimated forty-seven percent of school-leavers and adults in the United Kingdom could not name the Christian occasion to which Easter referred; in which more than one quarter of adolescents did not know whether Ireland is to the east or west of Britain; in which university applicants from allegedly decent schools cannot, at interview, identify even the most celebrated of quotes from Scripture let alone provide dates of some of the decisive, publicly commemorated events in their national history. What can be done at a time when the literacy and numeracy attainments of British school-leavers are judged to be among the very lowest in Europe and when would-be employers throughout trade, industry, and local government report that the ability to read a mildly sophisticated page or write a grammatical sentence is becoming the mark of a privileged few?
Certain disasters and straightforward remedies do lie to hand. Even the most efficient and devoted of our school teachers are being systematically humiliated and prevented from doing their proper jobs by mountains of legalistic paperwork, of coercive red tape. Far from being among the best remunerated and socially honored in the community—as were my lyçée teachers—they are, more often than not, wretchedly rewarded and held in indifference or contempt. The consequence has been an automatism of self-destruction: It is the least academically gifted who drift into teaching, transmitting their own saddened mediocrity to generations of bored students. I need hardly cite the erosion of elementary discipline and courtesy in the classroom, an erosion often precipitated by parental threats and “political correctness.” At the very center of these problems lies the abolition or watering-down of the grammar schools which were the object of international admiration and envy. The A-levels, with their invitation to premature constriction and to the cheery abandonment of other vital skills, simply do not equip one for the modern world, a truism long-admitted. Yet time after time an authentic reform, an introduction of baccalaureate featuring a grounding in both arts and sciences, has been shelved by special interests and an establishment frightened of innovation.
Today the structures of higher education are, at many points, crumbling. I have already referred to the utter devaluation of the term “university” by its extension to polytechnical and vocational teaching often of the most mendacious sort (those degrees in beauty care and vacation catering, in “social athletics,” and ballroom administration). It is manifestly obvious that populist hypocrisy will have to yield to an order of merit in which genuine higher education can be divided from a mushrooming growth of parasitic forms. In which a limited number of qualified universities—Britain is a small country—can be empowered to compete with each other and the best abroad. What is lacking is political will, the nerve to expose and defy that contempt for the life of the mind, that utter condescension towards intellectual excellence, which have been the mark of our political masters. Oxbridge is all too aware of the imminent dangers, of the pressure against quality and self-respect which now weigh on admissions. To speak longingly of some parity with Harvard or Stanford or Yale or Chicago is sad fantasy if the possibility of privatization is not the seriously entertained, if no practical steps are taken towards those modes of alumni support which alone have made possible American primacy. First and foremost, let us recall that human gifts, that will to concentrated mental hard work, are unevenly distributed and that the word “elite” means something very simple; it means that some things are finer than others and that no one is admitted to a physics department who cannot solve a binomial equation. (The Last Judgment will, I suspect, be a concours run by French examiners.)
Urgent and far-reaching as these issues are, they do not go to the heart of the matter. Which is that of a fundamental literacy for the men and women of today and tomorrow. By such “literacy” I mean the capacity to engage with, to respond to what is most creative and dynamic in our culture. To experience something of its joys and passions. To distinguish the news which stays new from the tidal waves of ephemeral rubbish, superstitions, and exploitation. Can we envisage a “core curriculum” for both intellect and sensibility? Can we sketch a syllabus correspondent to the latent strengths of the imagination, a central axis of roused awareness interactive with the potential of consciousness?
The provisional suggestions I am about to put forward will strike you as utopian, perhaps absurdly so. But there are moments of crisis in which only the utopian is realistic.
The eclipse of numeracy throughout our society, the ignorance among those who regard themselves as educated of elementary mathematical principles and concepts are at once a cliché and scandal. There is scarcely any constituent in the ways in which our world operates—economically, informationally, technically, but also in the instruments and surroundings of our daily lives—in which mathematical processes and rules do not play a seminal role. It is not only nature which speaks mathematics as Galileo taught, it is banking and insurance, transport construction, military strategy, and trade. But the relevant elements are to a vast majority a rebarbative mystery or the recollection of classes wretchedly taught and happily forgotten.
Our loss extends far beyond the pragmatic. The rapacious, territorial, often sadistic mammal that is man has generated a small number of activities, of constructs of consciousness of radiant uselessness and transcendent beauty. Their genesis and evolution remain a consoling mystery. These “motions of spirit” (Dante’s phrase) include music, poetry, metaphysics. Above all, they comprise mathematics. The debate as to their reality, as Plato held, or whether they are autonomous systems, axiomatic games of fantastic depth and purity played, as it were, from within, remains unresolved. It touches on what is most enigmatic in the resources and dreams of human nature. What is not in doubt is the sheer beauty, the elegance in unfolding, even at certain points the wit, of the mathematical enterprise. To have, as an American poet wrote, encountered Euclid is to have “looked on beauty bare.” It is indeed in mathematics that Keats’s otherwise somewhat rhetorical equivalence between truth and beauty has its fulfillment, a “beauty” whose precise and substantive meanings are all but inaccessible to the nonnumerate. Or as Leibniz opined: “When He sings to Himself, God sings algebra.”
The view is prevalent that beyond rudimentary rote, mathematics can only be taught to the specially gifted. The grim fact that so much of the teaching is in the hands of the disappointed, of those whose own attainments were wanting, reinforces this belief. There are, undoubtedly, innate and perhaps stubborn differences between the inclination to numeracy in different children. But such barriers have been grossly exaggerated. Hence my conviction that even higher mathematical concepts can be taught, can be made imaginatively compelling when they are presented historically, if the intellectual history which lies behind them and which led to their solution or nonsolution—the most fascinating, instructive case—is made manifest. It is via these great voyages and adventures of the mind, so often charged with human rivalries, passions, and defeats, that we nonmathematicians can look into a sovereign and decisive world. Allow me to cite two examples.
During millennia and in diverse civilizations, mathematical discoveries and proofs had been assumed to be what is most certain, most conclusive in human thought and affairs. The axiomatic was the very emblem of eternity and perfection. Certain subtle doubts began surfacing in the late nineteenth century, certain paradoxes such as emerged from non-Euclidean geometries. On 7 October 1930, in Kant’s city of Königsberg, an unknown young mathematical logician took, what his citation at Harvard decades thereafter described as “the greatest step in human thought since Descartes.” Kurt Gödel proved that in every consistent formal system there exist arithmetic propositions which are undecidable. Moreover, the internal consistency of any such system can never be proved from within. There will always have to be one or more propositions or rules from, as it were, outside. By the time Gödel’s proof came to be understood and applied, the foundations of mathematics, which are in turn those of science as a whole, had been irretrievably fractured. The new worlds were to be those of interdeterminacy (Einstein, who revered Gödel, could, on emotional ground, never come to terms with this cataclysm).
Its impact reaches far beyond mathematics and physics. It puts in radical question what had long been taken to be the limitless progress of human reason. On the other hand, Gödel’s proof allows Roger Penrose to refute all seductive analogies between computers and the human cortex. It is a beautiful critique culminating in the last statement that “Thanks to Gödel’s theorem, the mind always has the last word.” Even if, especially if, that word is one of uncertainty. An awesome freedom has been regained.
My second example draws on prime numbers. These are the building blocks of our universe. An alert child can begin to manipulate their magic. Developed in the 1860s by Bernhard Riemann, the Riemann Hypothesis concerns the distribution of primes (their number is infinite) and their relationship to zero. It postulates that this distribution can be mapped along a “ley line,” allowing one to predict when and where the next prime will turn up. A pride of mathematicians, many of towering stature, set out to prove Riemann’s intuitively persuasive supposition. Their labors entail not only concentrated genius but personal rivalries of the fiercest kind. Again and again, the proof has seemed tantalizingly close. Again and again there has been disappointment, sometimes leading to mental collapse and, it is said, suicide. As the most recent historian of this enthralling saga puts it, “Despite the best efforts of the greatest mathematical minds to explain the modulation and transformation of this mystical music, the primes remain an unanswered riddle. We still await the person whose name will live forever as the person who made the primes sing.”
Locate a story like that in its intellectual, social, historical, and even ideological context, wake the child and the student to the inexhaustible fun and provocation of the unsolved and you will have flung open more doors into spellbinding worlds, into “seas of thought” deeper and more richly stocked than any on the globe.
The persistent interleaving of mathematical and musical terms and concepts, the assertion, for example, that “primes have music in them,” are no accident. From Pythagoras onward, it has been known that the relations between music and mathematics are, as it were, organic. The immensely influential conceit of the “music of the spheres” arose from Kepler’s conviction that the elliptical functions which govern planetary motions are of a musical order, that the term harmonia mundi has a perfectly empirical and demonstrable sense. Pythagoras, Kepler, Leibniz would have rejoiced in the designation as “background noise” of the radio waves which are today regarded as the crucial traces and vestiges of the big bang. Examine a Boulez score and its close affinities with mathematical codes, and patterns become visible.
Numerous ethnic traditions and communities do not exhibit what we would legitimately entitle as “literature.” No society on earth, however rudimentary, however underprivileged economically or ecologically, exists without music. Musical notation, like that of arithmetic and algebra, is a universal language far beyond the aspirations of any conceivable Esperanto. A “top of the pops” tune will resound simultaneously in the backyards of Patagonia and the bars of Vladivostok. Electronic transmission, downloading, every form of disc, have boundlessly multiplied this universality. The languages of music need no translation.
Yet as obvious as the immense role of music in individual and collective existence is—how many of us could live without it?—so many riddles remain. To define music as “organized sound” is to beg the question. Can the often harmonious or syncopated sounds emitted by birds or by whales be defined as “music,” or is music singular to the human species? Intuition suggests that even complex musical forms long preceded the evolution of spoken languages. If so, how did they originate? “The invention of melody,” states Claude Lévi-Strauss, “is the supreme mystery in the sciences of man.” Each and every one of us has experienced the power of music to seize our emotions, to trigger sorrow or joy, ferocity or tenderness. What neurophysiological processes are involved? How does music work inside us? And how can it be that identical musical compositions produce delight in one listener and repulsion in another; that the same tunes, for example, Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” can serve as anthems for totally opposed political and social movements? Above all, there is the crucial semantic enigma. To most of us, music, a piece of music, will be charged with meaning. But when we seek to express this meaning, to translate it into verbal articulations, the result is either vaguely metaphoric or of a desperate banality. Music is meaningful in the extreme, but strictly considered, it has no sense. Its overwhelming force, moreover, is in essence useless. It is this nonutility which exasperated Plato, it is this anarchic “unemployment” which made him restrict music to athletic and military functions.
Learning to sing or play an instrument within the bounds of one’s natural abilities is a formidable enhancement of both psychological and social resources. Music is the therapy of the spirit, also, as had long been suspected, in a medical sense. To understand music is to be confronted with the limits of language. The meanings of music cannot, as we noted, be paraphrased. They are of irreducible reality. They are, in the most cogent sense of the word, “transcendent.” Observe the absolutely vital point. The musical experience cannot be “proved.” Whatever its intensity and self-evidence, it cannot be shown to have an existence other than its own (asked to “explain” a difficult étude, Schumann simply plays it a second and third time). Now it is precisely this utter presence beyond proof, paraphrase, or logical diagnosis which attaches to the “borderline” yet decisive phenomena of religious belief, eros, and death. In each of these and their defining interplay, music is the principal act of presence and communication. It is, as Nietzsche said in regard to Tristan and Isolde, the mysterium tremendum of the unfathomable obvious.
Architecture has been called “frozen music.” It has also been described as “geometry in motion.” The kinship between music and architecture is celebrated in classical mythology and enactment. Music accompanies the founding of cities; flutes resound as Athenians erect walls of the Pireaeus. As Valéry has it on his Platonic dialogue on architecture, the purpose of the architect is “to redistribute light, endowed with intelligible forms and almost musical perspectives, into the space where mortals move.” To those who have been taught to listen, “a façade can sing.” In both architecture and music, central aspects of harmony, proportion, thematic variation are essential and essentially related. In turn, these aspects are in essence mathematical. Numbers engender their truths. The delicated, animate temple, observes Valéry, “is the mathematical image of the girl of Corinth.” The origins of geometry and of algebra are inseparable from the musical theory on the one hand and the arts of the builder on the other. In a sense far beyond simile, divine creation is, in creation myths throughout the ancient world and in Plato’s Timaeus, the deed of a supreme architect and master builder. As late as Blake, the compass and the plumb line are the symbols of the cosmic blueprint.
Today we are in midst of one of the stellar periods of architecture in western and international history. The relevant techniques and theoretical considerations extend from material sciences, geology, design, and engineering to advanced mathematics. They pertain to economics and social policy, to demography and urban planning, to transport planning and ecology in the most comprehensive and urgent sense. To be introduced to the role of architecture in contemporary life is to touch on cardinal problems in the critical state of our cities, of our mobility, of what ideal we may still harbor of social justice and health care. Having known so much destruction, having witnessed the fragility of our proudest towers, it is as if we were in a fever of construction which, despite the etymology, is far from being edification. Add a further factor. It is precisely in today’s architecture that we encounter, at its most pragmatic and open-ended, the presence of the computer. There is architecture before the computer and there is architecture after. The borderlines and the transition can be mesmerically illustrated by the difference between the as yet intuitive, tactiles mathematics of the Sydney Opera House and the computer-controlled wonders of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In both these cases, design and construction would not have been possible without high-power holographic modeling and computation. (“Give the gold medal to the computer,” quipped Gehry when describing the Bilbao project.) In correlation, electronic music is used to argue the spaces in the revolutionary access to the Tate Modern.
A new literacy, as I imagine it, would have a core syllabus in mathematics, in music, and in architecture. The three domains of the human spirit can, where preferable, be taught historically. The computer, at the level of early schooling, makes them interactive with the imagination and reasoning faculties of the student. They open sensibility to the outermost reaches of the conceptual and the most immediate dilemmas in the world around us. Most important, they embody a virtually incommensurable potential of fun, of play, of aesthetic delight. Homo ludens to the turbulent heart of his being (where the experiencing of wit in mathematics, of humor in music, of playfulness in architecture, are, themselves, a pedagogy for hope). No man or woman should feel themselves to be literate without some grasp of what is a nonlinear equation, without an intimation of why and how a musical score speaks the only world language, without a perception of the issues at stake, both aesthetic and practical, formal and political, when a new building rises on his or her horizon. How else can we endeavor to be at home in what a great thinker has called “the house of being”?
You will, I fear, regard this proposal as somewhat deranged. I only wish it were more so.
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