The Literacy Crisis in American Public Schools

The bumper sticker that reads “If you can read this, thank a teacher,”  implies several bold propositions:

  1. If you can read this, then you are literate.
  2. If you are literate, then the efficient cause of your literacy is a teacher.
  3. Therefore, since you are literate because of a teacher, you ought to thank a teacher.

Should a teacher be thanked if a student is able to decipher these eight words? Is this a valid test of literacy?  And how did this trite and flippant slogan become an American proverb? In truth, this bumper sticker is just one of many indicators that point to the disturbing reality that we have a literacy crisis in our American public schools.

The literacy crisis and its roots
Jesus said “you will know them by their fruits.” What fruits have the public schools produced in the last century? The promises have been extravagant but the harvest has been bitter.  To speak truthfully, the American schools have become an intellectual wasteland. The accumulated falsity flowing from the public schools has coalesced into a clear picture:

With a few notable exceptions, teachers in the public schools are formally illiterate.

What the public schools market and sell as “literacy” is really only an ape we can call “material literacy.”  It has the appearance of literacy but is wraithlike in comparison to formal literacy, like the shadow on the cave wall.  Material literacy can be more problematic than outright illiteracy because it possesses the debilitating characteristic of endowing its recipients with false pride and incorrect certainty that closes the eyes and ears to true learning. If one thinks he is literate, but is not, what follows?

The decline of literacy in the West has a long and tortured history. The public schools have been enormously successful at cutting ties to tradition, Judeo-Christian ethics, and all things “dead, white, European and male.”  The etiology for sawing off the branch on which we sit goes back to the Garden. By their own authority, our first parents charted the course to which our fallen natures gravitate. The original sin set forth the archetypical pattern by which we can recognize our descent into disorder.

As a recent reminder of our ancient defect we can turn to Sir Francis Bacon.  The Novum Organum dazzled the western imagination. The material prosperity from the new scientific method blinded us to the warnings faithfully conveyed by the prophets. Stealing fire from the gods is a heady endeavor.  Intoxicated by Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum,” we absolutized the relative and relativized the absolute.  Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth explains that we have been “constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion.” The good Holy Father succinctly describes what has happened in the public schools.

Material Literacy
In the dictionary it is written that literacy is: “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.” The reductive nature of the dictionary makes it a good place to start but a poor place to finish. Overly influenced by modern scientific methods, we weigh, measure, count, manipulate, and dissect every aspect of literacy accessible to our instruments.

A student’s literacy level has long been the measure of educational progress. Material literacy is the truncated form taught in our schools.  This would comprise the material and scientifically verifiable attributes of literacy demonstrable by decoding and literal comprehension.  Sadly, most school teachers are in possession exclusively of this type of literacy.

Most qualitative considerations of literacy lie outside the scope of what interests us today. To be more precise, our first interest is the basic skill of flawless decoding determined through a timed reading that yields the superficial measure of how many words can be read “accurately” in one minute. Our deepest literary ambition is the reduction of all print to information and a shallow gleaning of “useful” facts for measurable short term recall, i.e. standardized testing.

Material literacy appeals to the emotions and appetites and is fueled by prurience and consumption.  Literacy as it has been transformed from a means into an end becomes an endeavor to accumulate “knowledge” rather than a means to learning; a puffing up rather than edifying.

St. Thomas Aquinas said “The believer’s act of faith does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities which they express.”  Something similar can be said of literacy: the act of reading does not terminate in the propositions that are read, but in the realities which the words express. Issues of quality; grammar, logic, ethics, rhetoric and the integration of truth are harder to acquire, more difficult to measure and are materially unobservable at their roots. These elements are absent from material literacy.

Formal Literacy
Formal literacy is literacy in its entirety with all its ends and purposes in their proper order and finding its fullest form in the expression and comprehension of the revealed word, the Logos.  Formal literacy appeals to logic and ethics and is driven by study and contemplation.  St. Thomas explains that the Latin word studiositas is properly about the knowledge of things and is the “keen application of the mind to matter.” Studiositas is the virtue in which we apply ourselves to come to knowledge and understanding of those things that are necessary for our edification and proper to our state in life.

In her book The Trivium, Sister M. Joseph tells us “the spoken Language is the original and fundamental system of symbols for which all other signs are merely substitutes.” God did not tweet Moses.  The Ten Commandments on stone are a substitute for what God spoke to him. These words are the signs pointing to the Old Testament Law which in turn points to the New Testament Law. It is the comprehension and integration of the Divine Law translated into action that is the proper end of literacy in this case, while the written law itself is the proper object of study and contemplation.

Writing is surely the most important substitute for the spoken word, but when a substitute is disconnected from its original source, the untethered substitute loses its gravity, permanence and eventually its relevance. The material literacy used in the public schools, untethered from the means and ends of formal literacy, is no longer applicable to the cultivation of the human mind.

By their own lights, when the educational architects cut literacy off from its true meaning and proper ends, they also took the license to untether the teacher from his ordered purpose.  No longer was the teacher to lead the students out of the cave of idols and to the fields of the inner landscape to cultivate the imminent arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric.  No longer was the idea of an education like the acorn growing into the oak. Instead, teachers have become like factory workers performing transitive operations to carve away undesirable attributes and called to fill empty heads by the pail of innovation from the river of forgetfulness called Lethe.

St. Augustine tells us in De Magistro “there is only one True Teacher.”  That teacher is Christ. We who dare to call ourselves teachers are only substitutes.  Without implicit reference to the True Teacher, we can be of little real service to our students.

One end of literacy is to understand by hearing and interpreting with the human heart what is written upon it.  Literacy itself is a means to an end. In reading great literature we are attempting to read reality rightly, to see things, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are.  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 implicitly requires that print put in front of human eyes must rise to an objective standard of quality.

To be formally literate also implies that a student must come to a piece of literature intellectually prepared to interpret the symbols properly by seeing the realities they express and to engage in the struggle to assimilate truth through study and contemplation and then to act on it.  For a student to acquire formal literacy skills he must be led to cultivate the intransitive arts of grammar and logic and rhetoric.  Literacy requires rhetoric to make it complete: we need not only to get ideas down on paper, but to make them live and breathe, to communicate them in a way that changes lives, enriching the human imagination.  Cultivating literacy is a decidedly moral endeavor that requires the use of the virtues.

St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine makes the connection between the three transcendental virtues of truth, goodness and beauty and the three writing virtues.  Truth is to argument (logic) as goodness is to mechanics (grammar) as beauty is to style (rhetoric). It is these three transcendental virtues cultivated by the imminent arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric that equip us to grapple with earthly things that lead us to an appreciation of these virtues perfected in God.  Formal literacy is conspicuously absent from American Public schools.

Where do we go from here?
Einstein said “a problem cannot be solved by the same mind that created it.” It would be delusional optimism to look to the universities, public education, or the state for solutions to the disorders they proliferate.  There is virtually no hope for a recovery of formal literacy as long as we persist in the ideologies born out of the failed “Enlightenment project.” C.S. Lewis reminds us that going back is real progress when we have been heading in the wrong direction.

We must return to our roots in the Great Western Intellectual Tradition. Chesterton would encourage us to reinstate a “democracy of the dead.”  Following the principle of subsidiarity we ought to restore the formal duty of education to the children’s first teachers, their parents.  We need to raise our sights, and rethink the meaning of the literacy we seek for our students.

The deeply rooted literacy crisis in the American classroom is perpetuated by the public schools and exacerbated by popular culture.  We must recover the golden cord of faith intertwined with reason and find our way out of this “enlightenment” labyrinth to restore the true light to a once noble profession and to the moral endeavor of teaching our students the true arts of formal literacy, lest we find ourselves gored on the horns of the post-Christian Minotaur.

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg


Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

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  • Watosh

    Yes, and what is the difference between a person who can’t read, and a person who doesn’t read?
    Another complication is that language itself has become corrupted, so that people can’t communicate because they don’t adhere to the accepted definitions of the words they use, but instead use their own private definition. As an illustration they may use the word “black” to describe something that is “white.” Very difficult to carry on a rational discourse under these conditions. Communication requires we have a common understanding of the words we communicate with. As communication is not possible for people who speak a different language, I fear what is happening now is people do not have a common understanding of the words used in their own language.

  • hombre111

    With 20 years experience in public schools, I am sure Mr. Rummelsburg has some horror stories to tell to back up his thesis. But public education is complex, as conversations with the public school teachers in my family quickly reveals. In my state, the final say about public school education lies in the hands of politicians who know nothing about education. And there are dictates from the national level that force teachers to teach to the test. There is this constant argument about what is best. One thing they agree on at the state level: less funding.

    Then there are the fads that sweep through university education departments, and the students emerge as messiahs to implement the latest trends. As usual, they ignore the wealth of experience that could be offered by older teachers. But teachers themselves are rarely consulted about what to do next. This comes from higher up, and every few years there is another fad and another direction. The new fad is core learning.

    In the meantime, teachers deal with large class sizes that means less individual contact with kids. There is the usual assortment of ADD, ADHD, and just plain troublemakers who endlessly require the teacher’s time for discipline, and distract the students who want to learn.

    Last but not least are the families the kids come from. In my town, summer means feeding programs for kids who don’t have enough to eat. They come to school hungry. Parents don’t back up teachers. Parents insist that a failing student be passed on to the next grade. The majority of kids in the classroom come from divorced families, often with single parent moms who are trying to get by on low wages. My state boasts that its wages are “competitive.” That means we are third from the bottom. I was raised in poverty, which is another word for endless shame and chaos.

    • Steven Jonathan


      You do bring up many important points that could be clarified with healthy dialogue. But really, to get to the root of the matter, we are suffering a crisis of fatherhood. Perhaps from the vantage point of this crisis St. Thomas Aquinas appears to be a mirage at this time when fathers have been so long absent and the ideal is fading from legend into myth. All of us need our fathers.

      You mention that a classical education is also a mirage. The smallest exposure to “the best that man has said and done” is a panacea for the troubled kid, the ADHD, ADD and all the other Munchhausen type of ailments we shovel onto our students in response to the plain fact that they are deeply insulted by the disrespect the educational system shows them. They are rightfully rebellious when asked to acquiesce to the dystopian vision of the swindlers. Aristotle said “Man delights even at the smallest exposure to the highest things.” I don’t have horror stories, I have stories about what delights the soul and mind of a troubled kid. It is no mirage father, but the vision of the “experts” for what constitutes an education is a nightmare.

      • hombre111

        Que bueno, Steven. Without a concerned and effective father present, things are rough. In my childhood, fathers tended to be distant figures, and my father, as an alcoholic, was more distant than most. As a result, as a boy, I had no real role model and had to use my imagination to figure out what an effective role model looks like. I was fortunate to be in the presence of some wonderful priests who were solid men who treated me with respect. That is why I am puzzled and wounded to realize that some of my own priestly contemporaries abused kids in the sixties and seventies. Where in the heck did that come from? I think my acquaintance with manly, holy priests had a lot to do with my vocation as a priest.

        • Steven Jonathan

          Padre, gracias por todo esto. I am glad to hear that you had a few good manly priests as role models, it puts me in mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. On the priestly abuse scandals, what a tragedy, we do in fact know what happened there.

      • Bunzocgg

        Bravo! If these children are not given the challenge of learning early of course they are bored, distracted and labelled. Give the kids a healthy challenge of learning especially in literacy from a young age like they do in the UK. We are moving back to England purely to give our young kids the best education they deserve. I neither want my kids labeled or medicated like so many poor kids totally unnecessarily.

    • Adam__Baum

      “In my state, the final say about public school education lies in the hands of politicians who know nothing about education.”
      In my state, the same is true, except the politicians are often the handmaidens of the NEA, which is like many occupational guilds, concerned with the creation of apocryphal constructs, for principal, if not the sole reason of the erection and maintenance of their economic status. Worse, the Feds are now involved, and issuing nonsense edicts under coercive fiscal threats.

      • Steven Jonathan

        Adam, you make a good point, the NEA is vile. However, just like Nazi Germany, the dehumanizing social utopian experiments have their genesis in the universities.

        • hombre111

          A union is all that helps a teacher repay student loans. If the local yokels had their way, a teacher would work for next to nothing, have no rights, and can be fired at whim. To see this model in action, look at the teachers in parroquial schools.

      • hombre111

        Yea, verily, things are a mess.

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  • Mack Hall

    I concur with hombre111, and add this: Mr. Rummelsburg, did you vote in your last school board election?

    Mack Hall

    2 years Catholic (that was the label, anyway) school
    31 years public schools
    20 years adjunct college faculty

    • Steven Jonathan

      Mack, I am missing the connection between voting for a school board and the dismal state of literacy in the American Schools. Are you suggesting that if I have voted for my last school board that I am contributing to fixing the literacy crisis?

      As to Hombres comment, it is easy to agree that there are many statements of truth, unfortunately most of them are ill weighted. He makes several points worthy of address, but the length required to address them adequately makes this combox the wrong place for that. There is the issue of money, funding, the faddish nature of
      approved curricula, the farcical nature of “learning disabilities” and the trouble maker, and the obvious fallout from the destruction of the family.

      Unfortunately, these very important issues are presented in the wrong context and their roots are obscured by ideology. Compared to all he mentions, a classical education is not a mirage, it is an education and whatever it is that is taking place now is not.

  • poetcomic1

    Yes and if a teacher didn’t teach you how to read you would have no idea what’s on TV tonight.

    • JohnR

      I learned to read before I ever went to school. My mother taught me.

  • patricia m.

    Being ironic, of course, but couldn’t you write something in 140 characters? I have trouble reading texts too long, don’t have enough patience to finish them.

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  • Sir Louis

    I retired a year ago from college teaching. I would have been delighted if the students who came to us had been even materially literate. There are some very able and very dedicated teachers in our schools. My heart aches for them.

  • Alecto
  • Rebecca Fuentes

    The desire for a classical education, as well as a Catholic one, led us to choose homeschool for our children. I was so delighted to discover the classical way of teaching, and felt so betrayed that in four years of studying education in college and nine more years of teaching, I had never once heard about the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. I agree with comments below, that our school systems are not equipped to make the shift to this–when so many students do not have the basic skills to function.

  • John O’Neill

    I am a retired public school teacher and can openly say amen to this article. As a rule my fellow teachers were rather ill educated and not very articulate in anything in particular. Teaching consisted mainly of handing out worksheets and telling students to fill them in and finish them for homework with the secret hope that the parents would do the homework. Of course I taught Latin which was on its way out and was retired when I retired and I was mostly treated as an oddball by the American educated teachers. The administrators were worse than the teachers since their main expertise consisted in the ability to brown nose their way up the corporate/educational ladder in pursuit of those big salaries and pensions. I came to the conclusion that the public school system in America is just a big job producing behemoth. BTW I did have experience teaching in Gymnasium in Germany and was very impressed by the old German system; today I think it has been destroyed by the growing drive to socialism and democracy in Europe. I tried to follow the old Latin principle of “docens doceo”.

  • Craig

    We are homeschooling (Mother of Divine Grace) and bringing Tradition into our Domestic Church, i.e., TLM and Sacraments. Also read up on Dorothy Sayers.

  • roxwyfe

    I learned to read at home before I started school. I was a very shy child and books were sometimes my only friends. I read widely divergent subjects, everything from history to science fiction to biographies.

    In college (which I did not begin until I was 40 years old), I initially took classes in Computer Information Technology and got an associate’s degree in it. When I went to transfer to the University, these classes fell under the Engineering department. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with three years of differential calculus!! So I became a Letters major. This is what used to be called a “classical” education. It consisted of history, literature, philosophy and ancient language. The beauty of this degree is that within these guidelines, I could customize my classes to what I was interested in learning. Most of my classes were involved in some way in ancient Greek/Roman history and literature as well as classes in Latin, which I discovered I truly enjoyed learning. Along the way, I earned a minor in Classical Studies and, had I stayed one more semester, would have had minors in History, Philosophy and Literature. Of course, I now wish I had done so, but I thought I was off to the wonderful world of the career. Boy was I wrong. No one appreciated my degree and I constantly have to explain it.

    I would not, however, trade what I learned for all the careers there are. I grew as a person and feel I have a better view of the current state of the world because I have studied its past. George Santayana teaches us, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And this has never been more true than our current state of education. We need to stop “teaching the test” and return to actually educating our children. We need to stop viewing the entire educational system as one big vocational school with the one goal of getting a job after graduation.

    There was a running joke while I was in school. As soon as anyone learned I was taking a humanities degree they’d ask if I’d learned the most important phrase I’d need after graduation. It was “Do you want fries with that?” implying that flipping burgers was the only fit end to this “unimportant” degree path. Seems like there are a lot of MBAs out there flipping the burgers now, aren’t there?

  • Ann

    Your command of the English language is quite apparent after reading this article. It is too bad you didn’t give any facts to back up your claim that with few exceptions public school teachers are illiterate. You bio lists twenty years experience as a public school teacher. I have been a public school teacher for thirty-four years and applaud my colleagues for a job well done facing much opposition from the public and private sector.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Dear Ann,

      Thank you for your sincere comment. Albert Einstein said something like “not everything counts that can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” The kind of evidence thatsatisfies the modern mind is nearly weightless when answering the question of a person’s literacy.

      It is much more complex than doing a study and finding a conclusion. If we take the long view and start at the beginning of the Great Western Tradition in Ancient Greece andfamiliarize ourselves with the great Ancient writers, proceed through the mediaeval teachers and follow a line up to the present, it isn’t too difficult to see the decline in thinking, reading and writing partly because of the reductionist ideology that has hypnotized this age. Just compare the text books of today to the text books of 100 years ago and you may begin to get an inkling of the decline.

      Please allow me to remind you that I said “formally illiterate” and I claim that nearly all pubic school teachers are at least materially literate. You claim that your colleagues have done their jobs well and I sincerely hope that is the case. My colleagues are sincere hard working people but to say that we are doing a good job is to confuse a good job for sincerely working hard. I believe that the public and private sectors have been grumbling about the horrific nature of public education, but in generally have given them a criminally negligent pass. If we are really able to stop and consider what goes on in most classrooms and we measure that against an objective standard of “good teaching” I think the lack of scorn from the public and private sectors is an outrage.

  • salvemaria

    What a wonderful piece! I’ve never heard literacy explained so well. I never knew literacy had a link to God – but of course, everything true has it’s roots and end in God.

    I read a few years ago a retired Oxford professor saying that the only real test for entry into university should the measure of a person’s literacy and numeracy. It makes sense now what he was saying!

    As someone said, “never be scared of the truth, for it is the truth you seek.”

  • Alecto

    My prized possession is a 1932 set of Harvard Classics (the Deluxe Edition!), which I found at a used book sale. Like another 1930’s Classic, the Cord 812 Phaeton, these little gems represent a pinnacle. They contain (in my humblest of opinions) everything of substance in order to be considered well-read, i.e., “formally literate”. Everything is there: ancient, medieval and modern greats: Cicero and Pliny, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Jefferson, Emerson, Goethe and much, much more.

    Why do we feel the need for constant evolution in education? Surely, some books, ideas, and poems or events are of primary importance in society regardless of the methods we use to impart them?

    • Steven Jonathan

      Alecto, I know just how you feel. The greatest teachers in the history of humankind are in my little library.

      • John200

        Steven J and Alecto,

        Me three. I have the Great Books and a collection of Fathers, Doctors, Aquinas, Catholic spiritual masters, ChesterBelloc, and a few writer-popes. These classifications overlap, so my little library does not take up much space. Nor did it cost much, a few hundred including two bookcases. I could give it to the right kind of kid, without hesitation, and quickly replace it.

        You should know about three little miracles:
        1)I am never alone,
        2)I am never bored, and
        3)I can talk with anyone about pretty much any subject. Including the unread about current pop culture nonsense.

        Are you inviting CrisisMag commenters for a ride in the Phaeton?

  • Adam__Baum

    It’s not just literacy, it is numeracy. The next time you are making a purchase and it’s 16 dollars and something change, hand the clerk 21 dollars and that amount of change. I have actually had clerks stand there insisting “you gave me too much”. Worse, they only sometimes understand the objective of obtaining a whole dollar amount of change after punching it into the register.

  • WRBaker

    From all that I’ve read, the situation won’t get any better with Common Core.
    Many Catholic schools suffer from the same problems, in part because administrators desire being able to compare themselves with the local public school system and in part because administrators and teachers were not educated in the classics themselves (the irony is even more pronounced when you discover many went to a Catholic university and hadn’t read Catholic classical literature either).
    I was told to stop teaching Latin as part of my middle school religion program and to bypass “hard” books (read, classics) in favor of the latest popular tripe that students were reading.
    It’s frustrating for a teacher to experience this and it’s tragic when the powers that be don’t care.

  • J. G.

    “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”
    Thank you mom!

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