On Being Literate

“Literate” has two distinct, though related meanings–with a commonly-accepted extension of the second–although one of those common meanings has been pejorated to the level of virtual meaninglessness in recent decades.

a. Able to read and write.
b. Knowledgeable or educated in a particular field or fields.
2. Familiar with literature; literary.
3. Well-written; polished: a literate essay.
1. One who can read and write.
2. A well-informed, educated person.

Anymore, “Able to read and write” and “One who can read and write” has become a useless definition of “literate” as the term has been made almost meaningless by “edumacationists” who use the term to apply to those they have mis-trained to be barely able to puzzle out words from those strange hieroglyphs on a printed page. *sigh* “Reading” that does not result in comprehension isn’t literacy at all, although it’s usually counted as so in “edumacationist” circles1.

And then there’s the problem of people who can read–either the laborious assignation of sounds to strange squiggles on a page or even real reading–but do not. Sadly, given both the content of much that is being written nowadays and the technical incompetence of many published writers (and their proofreaders and editors), those who choose to not read may often simply be avoiding brain damage. *sigh* Oh, come on! You’ve read, or tried to read, books that are so badly written that even brief exposure felt like a fork poking and stirring your prefrontal lobe! Writers who are so execrably bad at the craft, and who nevertheless are published–by traditional publishing houses, no less (Dan Brown: looking at you), whose editors and proofreaders are apparently not even decent ESL students (“*uh* Language is my second language. *uh*”)–abound. *gagamaggot*

But still, good writing with worthwhile content abounds, too. Too bad that both reading skills2 and exposure to well written works are avoided by the “edumacationist” establishment.

. . .Oh, well. Flying in the face of “edumacationists,” a few colleges are at least attempting to encourage literacy–both the ability to read and comprehend text and a genuine education, as opposed to simply behavior training and brainwashing students, as is more and more common in primary, secondary and so-called “higher” levels of “edumacationist” prisons for minds. Two such colleges are New Saint Andrews College, which takes an unabashedly Reformed approach to the liberal arts and St. John’s College, which takes a clean Western Civ approach to the liberal arts. Much of the core curriculum is similar in both institutions, although New Saint Andrews seems a bit more rigorous in some ways, requiring reading of the classical Greek and Latin texts in *gasp* . . .Greek and Latin. Nevertheless, many of the readings in the core curricula of the two schools are similar. The link below is to the core readings list for St. John’s. A good list. Not comprehensive, of course (and lacking some of the excellent and influential Reformed texts required at New Saint Andrews), but certainly a list where any literate person would find many old friends.

The Reading List

BTW, the core “reading list” above, as well as the core curriculum at New Saint Andrews, includes musical selections as well as graphic art selections for study and discussion. A Good Thing, IMO.

Of course, such lists are NOT a definition of a literate person but represent only a good starting point for anyone who is literate in Western culture. E.D. HIrsch, Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation and The Great Books of the Western World offer other approaches to literacy that are equally valid, IMO. (My own set of GBWW, purchased when I was 15, is a bit worn and is now backed up by a set picked up at a book sale, and we still have the “What every X-grader should know” books in the E.D. Hirsch, Jr. series we purchased for our kids’ elementary school years to back up our sets–yes, plural: one “collectible” set, one everyday set–of Junior Classics.)

One of the foundational causes of many of the woes we face in society today stem, I think, from the simple and profound fact that the ratio of literate (no, really literate) folks to illiterate (or perhaps simply “subliterate”) folks in our society has slipped so far, so fast. A simple example: around 50 years ago, when I was still a high school lad, my paternal grandfather gave me a collection of little books that was centered around 19th Century British poets. As I opened “Lady of the Lake,” he began to expressively “read” it back to me. . . from memory.

He was, at various times in his life, a farmer/rancher, a carpenter and a postal worker. In those days, I did not find his depth and breadth of literacy unusual, but perhaps I just lived in a clan of folks who were a bit more literate than others. Perhaps. The folks my parents and grandparents associated with, such as uncles who were ranchers, oil field roustabouts, route salesmen, country preachers, etc., as well as their extended friendships and acquaintances were, in retrospect, also pretty well read with wide ranges of experience and knowledge adding perspective to their understanding. (Edit: of course, family and acquaintances also included grad professors in–even today–esoteric intellectual subjects, a president of an institution of higher ed, some college deans, and others who were genuinely accomplished in intellectual and artistic pursuits, but that’s just it: folks in ALL walks of life had common LITERATE grounds to relate to each other. I recall an uncle drifting off from the TV football crowd during one family Thanksgiving gathering to come over and discuss the book I was reading. It turned out that Summa Theologica was a fav of his. . . *heh* And after the football game was over, we all gathered around the piano for singalong–in impromptu 4-part harmony–for better than an hour. Just a typical gathering at Me-Ma and Dad-Dad’s: politics, sports, theology, music, philosophy. Just the way things were.)

What changed (if anything)?

One of the theses found in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “The Revolt of the Masses” gives a clue in his delineation of “mass man.”

“The mass man lives without any discipline, and—as Ortega remembers from Goethe—’to live as one pleases is plebian.’ The mass man ‘possesses no quality of excellence.’ He demands more and more, as if it were his natural right, without realizing that what he wants was the privilege of a tiny group only a century ago. He does not understand that technological wonders are the product of an intricate cultural process for which he should be grateful. ‘What before would have been considered one of fortune’s gifts, inspiring humble gratitude toward destiny, was converted into a right, not to be grateful for, but to be insisted on. . . ‘”

*sigh* The elevation of “mass man” to be the determinant of culture means, therefore, the debasing of society to not only the lowest common denominator–which can and is pretty darned low, indeed! Rap “music” as a sample–but to a lowest common denominator defined by a “gimme-gimme” attitude that views the fulfillment of the basest desires as a “right.”

Add to that the dumbing down and brainwashing of society via “misedumacationists,” the Mass MEdia Podpeople Hivemind and the whole massive propaganda machine that debased contemporary culture depends on, and it seems inevitable that, absent a large leavening of literate folk, our society will slide into a new Dark Age.

But imagine what could be if even such small things as Volumes 4 (Heroes and Heroines of Chivalry) and 7 (Stories of Courage and Heroism) of the Junior Classics were reintroduced to large numbers of children in grade school! Models–real and fictional–of folks who courageously performed their duty, and more, instead of poorly (or even well-) written empty pablum or toxic waste served up for reading could have a positive effect, and might even serve as a small antidote or immunization against the toxic waste of Hivemind culture. (I’d suggest more than a small bit of Bible reading, too, but Prisons for Kids “edumacationsts'” heads would explode. On second thought, that may not be a bad idea. . . )

Too tired to tie this up with a bow right now. Maybe later I’ll revisit this post and finish this out. Lots of loose threads.

1 [insert stuff here later]
2 [insert stuff here later, too]


3 Replies to “On Being Literate”

  1. This new “Dark Age” promises to be darker and more intelectually barren than the so-called “dark ages” following the fall of Rome.

    1. Indeed. Although some knowledge was lost to general use during the not-so-“Dark Ages”–and even the knowledge that some knowledge existed–and the progress of knowledge and invention slowed, no really significant impairment of civilization occurred (although cultural pejoration certainly did, spottily). The Merovingian Court was, on the whole, at least on a par in terms of knowledge base, with the Roman Empire ca. A.D. 117. A.D. 2300 may well not favorably compare to A.D. 1950, though. . . *sigh*

      OTOH, “lost” knowledge may be easier to come by and resurrect after TEOTWAWKI. My personal library alone has massive amounts of information on large areas of knowledge (including all kinds of down-to-earth practical stuff from the 19th and 20th centuries) and that’s just my Dead Tree stuff. I ought to print out and bind some of the Really Good stuff now sitting on a server, in backups (local x 2–both magnetic and optical media–and “cloud”). Yeh, Real Soon Now. Then there are all the local libraries, assuming societal collapse to the point of raiding libraries for fuel isn’t on the horizon or that folks like me don’t arrange to protect them, that outshine the Libraries of Alexandria, all the monestaries of Medieval Europe and the looted material that once mouldered, untouched or misused in Arab hands. Knowledge wouldn’t HAVE to be lost in a new Dark Age. . . but where would the people be to even know how to look for it or–even worse–to know that knowledge about a certain subject once even existed? In fact, the latter is THE definition of a real dark age world: the loss of knowledge that realms of knowledge even exist (or had existed) and the institutions and skills to find/discover and use that knowledge.

      We are building a Cargo Cult society. The next dominant civilization may well be Indian (from subcontinent culture with an overlay of Western technology and a thin film of Western culture).I wouldn’t bet on it being Chinese, though. IMO, Chinese culture is too frail and insular to support a widespread civilization that rubs against other cultures.

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