Von Drehle to discuss changing face of literacy, historical perspective

What does it mean to be literate?

For David Von Drehle, editor at large of Time magazine, that question has become more complicated in the 21st century.



“It’s not remotely possible for even the most educated person to know more than a tiny fragment of what’s possible to know,” Von Drehle said. “And so we have to really rethink the concept of what it is, in these circumstances, to be a literate person.”

Von Drehle will open Chautauqua Institution’s Week One lecture series on “21st-Century Literacies” with his take the importance of historical literacy at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

“In the future, we need to focus on literacy not so much as a personal skill,” Von Drehle said. “It’s not so much a personal question: ‘Can I read and write?’ It’s a value question: ‘Can I communicate with others in a meaningful way?’ — in our case, about the past.”

Part of this meaningful connection, according to Von Drehle, is finding a common history in a time when many seek individual histories. 

“I think that cuts very much to the idea of what historical literacy will mean in the 21st century,” he said. “Is it just the history of me, of my family, of my people? Or do we ultimately preserve some kind of shared common history, and if so, how do we do that?”

Von Drehle also plans to discuss the importance of historical literacy for understanding current events such as the rise of ISIS, unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and the church shooting in South Carolina.

Von Drehle has applied this historical perspective to some of his work at Time, including recent cover features “The Roots of Baltimore’s Riots” and “Why The End of Capital Punishment is Near.” He is also the author of Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, Among the Lowest of the Dead and Deadlock: The Inside Story of America’s Closest Election.

“History should teach us the fallibility of human beings,” Von Drehle said. “We are forever dealing with problems that arise from the same eternal source: human nature. This realization should make us cautious and humble in our search for answers to our present.”

In addition to a better understanding of what meaningful communication with the past looks like, Von Drehle hopes to leave Chautauquans feeling more comfortable with the future.

“An understanding of the past, to me, is a comfort because it says that challenges can be faced,” Von Drehle said. “I hope that people will walk out at the end of our hour together with the sense that history gives us reason to continue to be hopeful.”