There is exponentially more to literacy than what meets the eye. The distinction between material and formal literacy does not indicate movement on a linear graph, but an organic three-dimensional expansion of intellectual apprehension into previously undiscovered realms. The claims believers make about materially undiscoverable countries and the transcendent origin of language evokes ire and insults from those tethered to the dank land on the cave floor. But a man’s disbelief in transcendent truth is not constituent of the fabric of reality; it is only the denial of it. Denial of self-evident and common-sense truths is paradoxically a way for a man to puff himself up while his boundaries drastically diminish. Materialists can’t really read because they have willfully blinded themselves to the vast majority of reality available to the human mind, and one can’t read what he can’t see. A brief examination of the three stages of literacy will illustrate the limits of a materialist’s ability to read rightly and demonstrate why the saints can read fully.
The Shadow Stage
The initial stage of literacy is the shadow stage. Plato provides an ideal example of what literacy is at this stage. It is perceiving and rendering judgment about things as they appear. At the bottom of Plato’s cave the prisoners are bound by the chains of ignorance and false ideals. They are unaware of the fetters and in fact perceive themselves to be free. By the false firelight on the bridge behind the bound prisoners, the men hold things up so they cast shadows on the back of the cave wall where the prisoners’ gaze is involuntarily captive. The babble concerning the shadows ebbs and flows. In the cave, it is accepted that consensus among enslaved souls judging solely by the appearances of things is the highest order of truth.
The fields that best exemplify and operate within the limits of the shadow stage of literacy are found in the material sciences. By scientific revolution, new paradigms are proclaimed victorious at the funerals of vanquished theories. The only permanent feature of this ethereal realm is that the current truth will die and be replaced by a new truth, and the process will go on until the end of time. This is clearly evident in physics as we have seen the Copernican revolution give way to Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc…. The currently dreadful fields of psychology, education, and too many more to name, which have been scientifically reduced, are constantly revising their truths as well, and the victory celebration of the new truths imbue them with a certain level of enthusiasm which is the determinant of their specific longevity. Once these temporary declarations of truth die, they become, as Dan Robinson so eloquently put it, “cadavers upon which we can discover the anatomy of confusion.”
A prime example of the shadow stage is the specific field of literacy instruction currently in operation in the public schools. It is exclusively limited to the appearances of literacy development and has been for generations. We have seen countless degraded and failed literacy programs implemented since the 1970s, and every one of them has been dismal. They have been grounded in the shadow work of decoding and interpreting the written word by self-reference. This is the pinnacle of modern, scientifically-reduced pedagogy. The driving force for revising this frightful field is myopic arrogance. The determinant source of change is useless data gleaned from meaningless exercises limited to the shadows of written words violently wrested from their true meanings.
The Image Stage
The second stage of literacy is the image stage. Words are the incarnations of ideas. As it was explained before, a word’s meaning is its image, and the image is the formal cause manifesting as the material cause of a word, the incarnation of an idea. Contrary to the shadow stage, which arrogates to the agent intellect the false authority to determine the meanings of words, those who pass into the image stage of literacy embark upon a journey of discovery to learn what words really mean.
Although it had been known from before the beginning of time that a word is intrinsically bound to its meaning and that a sign has a definite and purposeful connotation, the common sense truth of this notion has been long obscured, if not willfully forgotten, in this arrogant age. After nominalism, perhaps it was Descartes’ initial assertions of radical dualism that emboldened man to do to words what had been done to the perception of body and mind. For just as the mind is now considered separate from the body, so too are words considered separated from their meanings. These concepts untether man from his true self just as words have been separated from their true meanings. What ensues after one accepts this abstracted technical contrivance is confusion and chaos, until we witnesses the kind of moral and intellectual breakdown being prodigiously manifested in the West today.
The border between the shadow and the image stage of literacy is the boundary that demarcates the threshold that must be crossed to leave the land of shadows to enter the forests of formal literacy where one begins to see, not what he desires, but what is really there. If one travels to the frontier of the shadow lands of literacy and crosses over into the discovery that words and their meanings are inextricably composite entities, he will have crossed over from material literacy into the realm of formal literacy.
To move beyond the shadows of the cave, one must recover the truth that words by themselves are shadows pointing to their images just like the human body is the shadow of the human soul which is the image and likeness of God. The image stage is as far as the unaided mind can go by the use of natural reason and diligent study. We can discover by good intellectual work that words and their meanings are indissolubly one, and that therefore we must strive to be precise in our use of language to insure that we understand that the words we choose to use demonstrate the proper correspondence between the shadow and their image; otherwise we are not properly communicating, only misusing language.
The Reality Stage
The most advanced stage of literacy most accurately leads the agent intellect to its final end, that of reading reality rightly. We may well come to discover how to insure that our words correspond to their meanings and in doing so our speech may be rightly ordered and articulately expressive. Yet there is still work to be done as we learn that words and their images correspond to an ultimate reality that lies outside of time and space and beyond the realm of human perception.
By the gifts of revelation and aided by the Holy Spirit, we can come to understand the relationship among words, their meanings, and the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent Creator of the Universe who is the source of all language, all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. God is the origin and end of all words properly understood and properly used. Of course this is materially indemonstrable and likely to cause great offense to those dwelling in the cave of shadows. It is an article of faith to acquiesce to the ultimate truth about the nature of language. However, there have been many teachers in the past who may be able to be of some service in laying the groundwork so that the conditions to discover the truth about the nature of language may be cultivated.
Where to Begin
We might start by admitting that there is in fact an enormous literacy crisis among the so-called “literate class.” We might honestly recognize that our modern schools are not institutions of learning but houses of detention preparing future generations to be cogs in an economic machine which runs on ideological fuel.
The architects of modern curriculum and instruction are aptly characterized by Plato’s allegory of the cave as the men on the bridge holding up things that cast the shadows on the cave wall, while those shadows have been for too many generations the subject and content matter of our terrible instruction. The Common Core represents the most comprehensive incarnation of the dreadful work the schools do to shovel bucket loads of shadows into the heads of our children, an endeavor collapsing under the weight of its own immense meaninglessness.
Literacy is not an end, but the acquisition of which becomes a means to the end by cooperating with grace to have our natures perfected in the virtues. This is impossible if one does not see reality rightly. Authentic literacy is a prerequisite to prepare the conditions in the human soul to apprehend truth. Without it, all educational exercises are futile. What good does it do to read Shakespeare if one is not prepared to understand him? As I have said elsewhere, “reading literature is a means to better appreciate the intelligibility of reality, for literature comprises a world of symbols expressing the transcendental virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty as well as the proper moral and cosmic order.” This idea is conspicuously absent from the modern school curriculum.
The educational architects would have students read Shakespeare simply to have said they have read Shakespeare, without a real concern for the actual content of his work, but for the shadow of his reputation. Formal literacy implies that one is prepared to see reality through the medium of symbols and signs conveyed by rightly ordered words in order to grapple with truth, that he may come to know, love, and eventually act upon the virtues discovered and avoid the vices. Let us begin by seeing modern pedagogy for what it is and cease acquiescing to it by our silence and stop participating in it by exposing our children to it.
Where to End
The three stages of literacy, if properly understood, explain the great disparity between materialist and authentic literacy. What does a materialist understand when he reads by the lights of the shadow stage of material literacy? If he reads Dante’s Inferno? He sees tortuous judgmentalism. If he reads St. Augustine’s City of God? He sees scientific error. If he reads Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ? He sees inappropriate self-abuse. If he reads the tenets of the Catholic Faith? He sees brainwashing and patriarchal domination. He is incapable of reading anything holy and true without seeing falsehood, deceit, and abuse.
What does the soul in possession of formal literacy see when he reads these same works? In Dante’s Inferno he sees an inspired account of the nature of sin and its consequences. In the City of God he learns about the requirements to be a citizen of Heaven. If he reads The Imitation of Christ he learns about the self-emptying love of Christ and of the chasm that lies between our inclinations and our call to Christ’s twin commandments. The formally literate soul is incapable of reading these works without being intensely moved by their profound depth of truth, goodness, and beauty. Not only can he read and be transformed by the greatest literary works in history, he is appropriately repelled by the incoherence of the new literacy methods and the current lurid scribblings that populate the bestsellers’ lists.
Let us end with the truth about literacy. Words themselves are signs composite with their meanings intended to be discovered, not determined by curricular architects designing conveyance methods for modern ideologies. Let us emerge from the cave of shadows and live in the real light of reason as we prepare our souls to receive the light of reality by the gifts of our Creator. Material literacy steeped in self-reference is what binds us to imperceptible illiteracy. Our children deserve better than that, and it is our duty to arm them against the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune that embodies the false literacy in our public schools.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.