Friday, October 30, 2009

Language and Consciousness

I just got finished grading causal papers about Frederick Douglass. I asked students to choose a strategy of slavery or escaping from slavery that Douglass discusses in his Narrative, and to explore the mechanism by which it either turns a person into a slave or a slave into a full human being, according to Douglass. Reading many papers about literacy, I began to think, as I have occasionally in the past, about how a pre-verbal child is not fully conscious, and to wonder whether this is true of adults or older children who are not literate as well. Language is such an integral part of who human beings are, that perhaps without the ability to read, as well as to speak, we are not really capable of full consciousness. Think of Helen Keller. I am sure that is an iffy and perhaps dangerously politically incorrect hypothesis, but it would be interesting to investigate. At least the quality of consciousness is different in literate people than it is in ones who are not.


Lou said...

This topic might ask the question, conscious of what? That freedom determines the fullness of human existence? Or that one is thirsty and cold?

I was too young to be fully engaged by my own children, but with my grandchildren, it occurred to me often that as they learned language they were able to tell us what was already there.

Robbi said...

Perhaps you are right that the question begs the question. But I am going by what Douglass himself says, that he didn't know he wasn't aware till he was aware. That is true of all experience, I suppose. So this suggested to me that being illiterate is a kind of innocence that is gone once a person is initiated into literacy.
It's like thinking you're all alone in a room and suddenly being aware everything you are doing is being watched on tv or through a one-way mirror. You suddenly inhabit a much fuller world.