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illiterate ageMany mistakenly believe this is a literate age. But in reality there is a literacy crisis the world over. The vast majority of people are in possession of literacy skills that constitute the mere shadow of true literacy. As a people, we are no longer able to detect the tones of reality or perceive their meanings by the signs and symbols around us; this is particularly true of material and nominal believers in the teaching class, and their disciples. Those authentically engaged in the projects of philosophy and religion have not suffered the same fate, but those un-afflicted by false literacy seem to be fewer and farther between than in any other age.

Roots of the Problem

All human crises have their roots in the Garden with the original disobedience, but we need not look further back than Occam’s nominalism to discover the roots of the current dearth of authentic literacy. Modern solutions to the problem of universals are generally unsatisfying, but none is quite as unproductive as nominalism. William of Occam (1287-1347) asserts the theory that general ideas are meager verbal descriptions. In other words, there are no universals, only arbitrary attempts to name things with no particular correspondence to ultimate reality. According to nominalism, what we call things are labels for a gathering of things or a series of events. There need not be any real correspondence between what we call a thing and its actual meaning. Although this notion may not offend modern sensibilities, it is a grave offense to eternal truth, goodness and beauty.

From nominalism’s “initial deviation from truth” in the fourteenth century, we in the West began our descent into a darkness from which we are never likely to return, at least not by our own lights. The several centuries that followed Occam, ironically called the “Enlightenment,” darkened our minds. Today we find ourselves stumbling around in pathological darkness with nary a ray of real light to guide us back into the ways of truth. The “thousand fold errors” emanating from nominalism have multiplied a thousand fold and we are left with an intellectual Gordian knot of astronomical proportions.

The aftermath of theological and philosophical disintegration in the collective mind and public conversation in the West has led to the bizarre reality that literacy has been so dramatically altered that literate men from ages past would hardly recognize her today. What takes place in classrooms is not education in literacy, but simply a shadow of it. To begin to discover the difference between authentic literacy and what is merely called literacy today requires at least one distinction which will be put forth here. And while this may serve to elucidate the problem for people of faith and philosophical background, I fear it will do little more than to raise the hackles of illiterate materialists who mistakenly find themselves to be literate, for as it is written, the dark overcome by light cannot comprehend it.

Material and Formal Literacy

Group of happy multiracial school children reading booksThere is a distinction to be made between material and formal literacy. The modern dictionary says that literacy is “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.” This is a fair definition of material literacy and the bedrock of modern pedagogy in the classroom. All the considerations epitomized by Common Core literacy standards demonstrate that decoding, recall, and personal response by self-reference to the written word are really the limits of modern notions of literacy—in other words literacy’s shadow.

In the public schools we count, measure, manipulate, and dissect all the material aspects of observable literacy. The material literacy promoted by the schools appeals to the emotions and appetites as it measures what really doesn’t matter. Modern literacy has been inverted from a means to an end. Scientifically-reduced literacy is an endeavor to accumulate facts rather than to acquire truth. Our modern notions of literacy comprise attempts to puff up by the pride of acquisition rather than to edify by the discovery of truth. Thus we end with scientifically-reduced notions of literacy known by the measurable aspects of its mere shadow.

Sadly, most teachers who are materialists are solely in possession of material literacy skills. In reality, material literacy is a basic component of authentic literacy, but it is only an instrumental and subsumed stage, not the end. When a person has only this material literacy it is actually a virulent form of illiteracy. One is able to give oneself the impression of literacy by the material act of decoding words, parroting basic recall, and making self-referential interpretations. The delusion that this is literacy prevents most from further inquiry into the true nature of language and what comprises formal literacy.

Formal literacy finds its fullest form in the comprehension and expression of the Logos. Formal literacy extends infinitely beyond black ink on a white page. It acknowledges that human appetites ought to be subordinated to right reason; that we are beings who recognize their created status and their place in the cosmos as dictated by divine justice. True literacy is not primarily visual and cognitive. In its essence, it is about hearing with the human heart what is written upon it concerning man’s twin duties to God and neighbor as he navigates the perilous and narrow path to salvation.

There is no doubt that to explain the nature of formal literacy requires much more time and space than is available here. The above provides only a few hints about the nature and fullness of true literacy, but sadly, the average teacher would have no idea what is signified by the above description. The devout member of the Body of Christ who has made strenuous efforts to cooperate with grace to acquire the intellectual and moral virtues is in a position to receive the infused virtues constituting the tools by which we may become truly literate.

Obvious Objections

If we acknowledge that we live in times that have been reduced to material considerations, then it may be easy to understand how material literacy becomes the only kind of literacy needed to navigate this materialistic age. This is analogous to the false notion that the highest way of knowing things is by the inductive reasoning embodied in the scientific method. In the cluttered minds of the teaching class there is no room for things that are deemed to be without survival value. By modern standards of education, no doubt bereft of any real learning, formal literacy skills are not only unnecessary to survival, but they are also troublesome to modern ideologies.

Formal literacy is not ideological and in fact causes the dismantling of it. One cannot be formally literate in the fullest sense and still be ideological. Material literacy by itself is ideological in the deepest sense and conveys the ideological assumptions of American education as fashioned by John Dewey and as ossified in the 1970s with the advent of Outcomes Based Education.

How is material literacy merely a shadow of literacy? It might be helpful to consider that St. Thomas Aquinas said: “The believer’s act of faith does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities which they express.” We can say the same for literacy: “the acts of reading don’t terminate in the propositions that are read, but in the realities which the words express.” This truth is what points to the distinction between material and formal literacy. When we recognize the relationship between the word and its meaning we begin to develop formal literacy skills, as long as we are beginning to perceive the authentic nature of the relationship, not an arbitrary relationship determined by our own desires.

The Nature of Language

Concerning the nature of language, we ought to consider what Sister M. Joseph tells us in her book The Trivium: “The spoken Language is the original and fundamental system of symbols for which all other signs are merely substitutes.” The written word is a technological contrivance to aid us in recognizing the spoken word. Our spoken words are imitations of God’s spoken Word, which is the embodiment of inerrant truth. We are prone to misuse words; God’s single Word is perfect. Our spoken words are mere shadows of God’s spoken word, and ours contain truth to the degree that they correspond with any particular aspect of His Word. The fact that the written word is a technological generation away from the spoken word makes the written word a shadow of a shadow. It ought to give us pause that they contain a higher potential for error being one more generation removed from the source of truth.

95771998264873871_1406642174Plato described the dangers inherent in the technology of the written word in the Phaedrus, claiming that this discovery “will create forgetfulness in the learner’s soul.” Plato rightfully points out that the written word will cause people to stop using their internal memories because they will have an external record of things that ought to have been memorized. Plato says of the invention of the written word that those who adopt it will not acquire truth, “but only the semblance of truth. They will be the hearers of many things and will have learned nothing. They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company having the show of wisdom without the reality.” A more apt characterization of our “literati” could hardly be proffered.

The same sad state of affairs described by Plato is confirmed by St. Paul in his letter to Timothy as he refers to a population in the fetters of material literacy as those “who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth,” for they are “men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith.” Just so, the belief that material literacy is appropriate for human learning is to be of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith because the beliefs of philosophical and revelatory truths are denied in favor of material facts. This expresses the ultimate act of misreading reality and characterizes material literacy.

Those steeped in material literacy do not see the real connection between a word and its meaning. They use shadows and claim the right to have their words mean whatever they want them to mean. In formal literacy, there is the recognition that words are inextricably tied to their meanings in a universal sense analogous to body and soul. The soul and body are not a compound of two things, but composite where the soul is the formal cause of the material body; which is the manifestation of the formal cause. Just so, a word and its meaning are a composite where the meaning is the formal cause of its incarnation, the word itself.

The Truth is Simple

Galileo

Galileo

Galileo said “all truths are easy to understand once they are discovered, the point is to discover them.” The explanation of the literacy crisis is simple once it is discovered. Understanding the distinction between material and formal literacy is a good place to start, but nearly impossible to grasp for the mind steeped in ideological scientific reductionism. We have made an idol of the written word in this material age. It is an act of self-worship to arrogate to oneself the ability to be the arbiter of truth concerning the meanings of words. The real aim of true literacy goes infinitely beyond the printed page and is not about our authority but our ability to discover.

The teaching class and those who erroneously consider themselves literate remain willfully in the womb of sense perception known only by the material sciences. This is the realm of shadows best described by Plato’s allegory of the cave. The materialist mistakenly thinks that going from the deceived and bound prisoner to the deceitful guard on the bridge holding up the images in front of fire that cast the shadows is the movement from the dark into the light. This misapprehension is a real and often times invincible ignorance.

True literacy is a gift created not by man but bestowed by God. Language is not invented by man but emanates from the heavens as it flows through the eternal Word by divine intellect and through created things for the delight and edification of human persons, as we cooperate with God to take Him up on His offer to perfect our natures by His abundant graces. The fact that materialists are unable to truly read will come as a great shock to them. It will seem cruel at first, but if by the grace of God even one is gifted the humility to enter into honest and reasonable dialogue concerning the nature of authentic literacy, then this offense will have been worth it.

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Published: Oct 9, 2015
Author
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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8 replies to this post
  1. “Understanding the distinction between material and formal literacy is a good place to start, but nearly impossible to grasp for the mind steeped in ideological scientific reductionism. We have made an idol of the written word in this material age. It is an act of self-worship to arrogate to oneself the ability to be the arbiter of truth concerning the meanings of words.”

    – Protestantism: ‘Implementing Ockham since 1517’

  2. In the midst of an argument, I once told an acquaintance, “I didn’t say you couldn’t read, I said you were illiterate.” (Yes, I was in a foul mood.) The other person had just declared the entire field of the Humanities — literature, history, philosophy, etc. –as irrelevant to modern life, and remarked the only subjects worth studying were STEM topics. When I pointed out, one could learn more about human psychology from reading literature than from psychology (I was a Psych Major at the time), he dismissed all of Social Studies (including sociology, economics, and, of course, psychology) as also irrelevant.
    From invincible ignorance, O Lord, deliver us.

    • Quite right David Naas, an artifact of this new kind of illiteracy is a disdain for the humanities in favor of empirical subjects out of the new STEM ideology. Oddly it seems psychology, education, and history have been gutted of their human content and what remains is data and interpretation by the dim light of human authority- sad state of affairs indeed. Thanks for the good comment.

  3. How is a humane culture possible that doesn’t recall and instruct us in our past? Otherwise there is only the today of the of the opportunist and demagogue.

  4. Is it just me, but after reading this excellent piece, I am beginning to wonder whether many of the discussions and methods I observe, and participate in, ‘on the shop floor’ of the New Evangelisation, as well as much of the talk about the Liturgy, seem to be based upon a ‘Material Literacy’ of the faith?

  5. Paul, I know my RCIA and Catechist training were steeped in the material literacy to the point of inefficacy- I know that the vast majority of education is also steeped in the reductionist grammar- if your wondering about this turns out to be the case, it may partially explain the glaring lack of catechesis the world over. This is worth a discussion at least.

  6. In today’s technologically based world one might spend a decade or more studying his chosen specific field, leaving time for little else. 200 years ago one could learn a trade much quicker, and have more time to study the humanities, to satisfy his remaining thirst for knowledge. In this regard, I would agree with the author, and argue Man was more “literate” in the past than we are today. Obviously, with a better understanding of the humanities, one would look at, and understand religion, in a different light as well. We seem to be educating ourselves to be more productive humans, not more knowledgeable ones. This likely explains why today it is seen that it is the “educated” person who doesn’t “believe” in religion, and not the other way around. How will the western world survive such a high number of “educated” citizens?

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