Around the world, from the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, which may be 25,000 years old, to the images left behind by the lost Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest, to the ancient aboriginal art of Australia, the most common pictograph found in rock paintings is the human hand. Coupled with pictures of animals, with human forms, with a starry night sky or other images that today, we can only identify as abstract, we look at these men’s and women’s hands, along with smaller prints that perhaps belong to children, and cannot help but be deeply moved by the urge of our ancestors to leave some permanent imprint of themselves behind.
Clearly, the instinct for human beings to express their feelings, their thoughts, and their experiences in some lasting form has been with us for a very long time.This urge eventually manifested itself in the creation of the first alphabet, which many attribute to the Phoenicians.When people also began to recognize the concept of time, their desire to express themselves became intertwined with the sense of wanting to leave behind a legacy, a message about who they were, what they had done and seen, and even what they believed in.Whether inscribed on rock, carved in cuneiform, painted in hieroglyphics, or written with the aid of the alphabet, the instinct to write down everything from mundane commercial transactions to routine daily occurrences to the most transcendent ideas–and then to have others read them, as well as to read what others have written–is not simply a way of transferring information from one person to another, one generation to the next. It is a process of learning and hence, of education.
Ariel and Will Durant were right when they said,”Education is the transmission of civilization.” Putting our current challenges into historical context, it is obvious that if today’s youngsters cannot read with understanding, think about and analyze what they’ve read, and then write clearly and effectively about what they’ve learned and what they think, then they may never be able to do justice to their talents and their potential. (In that regard, the etymology of the word education, which is “to draw out and draw forth”–from oneself, for example–is certainly evocative.) Indeed, young people who do not have the ability to transform thoughts, experiences, and ideas into written words are in danger of losing touch with the joy of inquiry, the sense of intellectual curiosity, and the inestimable satisfaction of acquiring wisdom that are the touchstones of humanity.What that means for all of us is that the essential educative transmissions that have been passed along century after century, generation after generation, are in danger of fading away, or even falling silent.