The year is 2040, and we have reached another crisis. You’ve got to understand, citizens of the early 21st century, that for you the future is open. Limitless. Every year you make great scientific strides — the edges of your understanding are pushed further and farther with dependable regularity.
But up here in 2040 we have a problem. We’ve been teaching apes to read for years now, and early on made great progress. In recent months, however, work has inexplicably ground to a halt. The very best apes can read 200 words or so and have not increased their range in quite some time. All efforts of our greatest scientists have yielded nothing.
A grand symposium is held. The struggle is symbolic, you see. To fail in one area of advancement could shake the very foundation of the sciences apart. The can be no limits to scientific understanding, otherwise what is it for?
As the world’s most eminent high-school English teacher I am given at seat at the conference. We assemble around an enormous table and conversation is loud and animated.
“We’ve tried everything,” the scientists say. “The monkeys just won’t learn!”
“Have you tried… bananas?” suggests the animal trainer.
“Yes, we’ve tried bananas. And juicy apricots, with no results.”
“Moore’s Law states that computers will double their processing power every eighteen months,” offers one scientist.
“Yes, but that’s computers, not apes,” says the zoologist.
“But isn’t a monkey’s brain essentially a computer?” The scientists all nod.
“Chimpanzees. You’re teaching chimpanzees. In any case I think it’s different.”
“More funding. We need more funding. A couple of million in government grants could get us over this slump,” say the scientists.
“Did you know that we are now approaching adult illiteracy rates of forty percent?” I say.
The chair clears his throat and nods through steepled fingers. “It’s all symptomatic of the same problem,” he says. “How are we supposed to teach an entire nation to read if we can’t even teach this one monkey?” Everyone murmurs agreement.
“We’ve been looking at genetically engineering chimpanzees,” a scientist puts in. “Making them smarter.”
“What’s the point?” I say. “It won’t really be a chimpanzee anymore. So what’s the achievement?”
“It would still look like a chimpanzee, I guess.”
“Maybe we could engineer a human to look like a monkey? Would that be easier?” another group of scientists offer. A couple of people start discussing this earnestly.
Later they bring in the most literate chimpanzee alive. His name is Sparkles, but he signs it Spkl because he can’t recognise words over four letters. He gets onto the table and plays with coffee cups. I beckon to him with a banana and he ambles down to where I am sitting. As he eats he sits with legs dangling over the edge and his feet gripping the tops of my knees. He tugs absentmindedly at handfuls of my hair, ignoring entirely the exchanges going on around us.
“Why won’t you read, Sparkles?” I whisper under the raised voices. “Why can’t you learn?” He doesn’t reply but his eyes speak volumes. They speak the same volumes I have heard in the voices of students all my working life. They say: “Reading is for queers.” I nod and hand him the rest of the banana.