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:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

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.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...