Literacy in Crisis: The Humanities, Classical Literature, and Why We Read Great Books

Literacy in Crisis: The Humanities, Classical Literature, and Why We Read Great Books

I woke up this morning with two different articles I’d recently read swimming in my head. Funny how when I was awake I hadn’t made the connection, but my brain felt the need to connect the dots while I was sleeping.

The first piece was this article from Crisis: The Literacy Crisis in American Public Schools. (If you’re only going to click through and read one of the articles, read this first one)

  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?

‘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.’

I like that about “untethering the teacher from his ordered purpose.”

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.

I was so very blessed in high school to have several teachers who were formally literate in the terms laid out in this article. The first teacher ever to articulate for me the principles of this kind of literacy was an honors English teacher, Mrs. Martha Hastedt, to whom I will be perpetually grateful for teaching me the terms “diction” and “syntax” and for making me read Bleak House. Mrs Hastedt used to tell us that we needed to have what she called “world knowledge”. What she meant was that we needed to be culturally literate. Mrs Hastedt taught Freshman Honors English the fall semester and Senior Honors English in the spring, which meant that her class bookended my high school career. Next door to Mrs Hastedt was Mrs Susan Fugate, the Latin teacher, who taught me to read Latin, to aspire to think and dream in Latin. Even though I never came close to that goal, one thing I did learn was to understand that a language helps you to think differently. That there are thoughts you can think in one language which you can’t think in another. She helped me to see that to really understand other people, we must first learn to speak their languages. The four years I spent in her classroom changed my life.

If it hadn’t been for these two marvelous teachers I might not have ended up at UD, where I learned to think of “formal literacy” as The Great Conversation.

Re-Reading and the Value of the Classics both Fiction and NonFiction

On that note, comes the second article that popped into my head this morning. In his post On Re-Reading Darwin Catholic writes a post that highlights some examples of people who are materially literate but not formally literate. They come in the form of comments on a blog conversation about re-reading.

One commenter doesn’t understand why one should re-read non-fiction instead of just reading secondary sources about the ideas contained within it:

I can understand why some non-fiction books might be objectively worthy of multiple readings, because the ideas contained therein are important and perhaps not obvious the first time around. Of course it is highly arguable whether understanding a non-fiction book itself is actually important, or if what’s more important is to understand the ideas therein: why re-read Adam Smith when you can get the same from reading the secondary literature on it?

Another commenter doesn’t seem to understand why you wouldn’t just skip reading the great books altogether to just read the secondary sources:

I think that reading the great books or the “classics” is more or less a form of conspicuous consumption. People do it to appear smart or cultured or what have you.

Literally millions of people have read these books before you. Chances are that at least a few of them are one or more of the following (i) smarter than you; (ii) a more insightful reader than you; (iii) a better writer/summarizer of others than either you or the author of the great book, and a few of them probably left behind secondary literature.

Should we, as people who read a free market blog, not defer to those experts to produce our understanding of great books, much as we would defer to an efficient pin factory for our pin-making, instead of making pins at home?

And the first commenter also seemed dubious about the value of reading fiction at all:

But are any fiction books truly “important” in the same sense? Seems a lot more subjective: people should re-read the books they think they will derive pleasure from re-reading. Perhaps some novels are so complex that they typically have to be read several time before the reader “gets it” to the full extent the author intended (or even beyond), but it seems like an equally rational response to those books, in the presence of limited time, is to toss them.

Darwin’s responses are excellent as he goes on to explore various reasons why we should read primary works and not just secondary works, why we read literature at all. I don’t have much to add to what he writes, but I was interested in looking at the connections between the two pieces. The commenters Darwin highlights all seemed to display a form of formal illiteracy. If you don’t really understand the value of primary sources, the value of literature, the value of re-reading, then I think you aren’t fully literate.


The Humanist Vocation

And then there’s this nice NY Times piece about the value of the humanities, really arguing in the same vein as the Crisis piece: The Humanist Vocation.

But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.”

“Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

In other words, liberal arts professors grew illiterate. They no longer were interested in entering the great conversation, they no longer valued the works of the past except as a mine of raw material they could use to bolster their own notions. Eisegesis not exegesis became the standard methodology. More in love with discerning an image of themselves in texts than in discovering the other, projecting presuppositions, agendas, and biases onto the classics, they began to engage in chronological snobbery: everything from the past must be dissected so that we enlightened folks can discern how and why the poor benighted folk were wrong. Is it any wonder students no longer value what the liberal arts professors have to say?

The article ends with this cri de coeur from a Western Civ teacher who is frustrated at the illiteracy of his students s reminded me of my own days trying to teach a humanities survey course to students at Montserrat College of Art. Some of the students were wonderfully engaged and delightful to converse with. Others could see little or no value in entering the conversation.

Teaching Western Civ, Weintraub wrote, “seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’

“I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems and situations of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.

“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? … How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?

“Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”

The Revival of Classical Education

I didn’t like the title of this piece Classical Schools Put Plato over iPad, I know it’s just a catchy headline, but there doesn’t have to be a conflict between classical education and technology. Our family has an iPad which is pretty much dedicated to the kids for school stuff and I definitely lean toward the classical education model. We have used it to look at classical Greek art, to watch videos about the pyramids and the Minoans, to listen to orchestral music, as well as doing math and reading apps. Oh and French. I also have an app for Eliot’s The Wasteland on it. Technology makes primary sources easy to access, it opens up possibilities.

I suppose the idea behind the title is a refutation of the attitude that technology by itself—putting iPads into classrooms—will fix what is broken in education. I definitely see technology playing a part in education, always as a tool, though, not as the driving force of change. It makes a good servant but a poor master.


The Heart of the Matter

Then there was this beautiful little video that makes the case for the humanities, for cultural literacy. Bella paused to watch and though she didn’t understand the argument, she thought it was beautiful.


The Heart of the Matter from americanacad on Vimeo.



Crying over Fictional Characters

Finally, a piece that touches on the ways in which literature touches our hearts and argues that we have a moral obligation to apply those lessons from literature to our own lives or all the pathos we feel is in vain. Would St Augustine Cry over Krypton?

I don’t think it’s wrong to grieve for fictional characters. Augustine’s problem was that he cried over the fictional world but didn’t cry for his own. If the death of a fictional planet prepares our hearts to grieve, if it provokes a knowledge that this world too is passing away, then let us enjoy the movie without shame. If the fictional world merely helps us escape from this dying world, then we’ve got a problem. When entertainment numbs the pain and makes us forget that this world is broken, we’ve begun to amuse ourselves to death.

We shouldn’t let Krypton’s destruction keep us from praying for Syria. Let Krypton’s destruction remind us that this world is passing away. Let Dido’s death remind us that apart from a savior we all lay dying before God.

I think in fact it’s very right to grieve over fictional characters. I think one of the primary purposes of literature is to develop our capacity to empathize and to understand the mysteries of the human heart. But I do think the point is well made that literature can’t be an end in itself, but must educate us to right action.


The Common Core and Classical Education

Related, but on a slightly different tack, Anthony Esolen blasts the Common Core Curriculum in his essay Life Under Compulsion: The Dehumanities. Esolen claims that the Core is antithetical to the classical humanities. However, a mother in our local Catholic Homeschooling group praises the Common Core:

Common Core brings back classical literature, more analytical writing and critical analyses of non-fiction sources. The message on math is mastery—repetition and solid skill building, with application to problem-solving. In general, this is a return to more disciplined learning.

Schools are being challenged to develop their faculty more to meet these classical education challenges. Most English teachers have done fluffy fiction, no non-fiction, and focused on creative writing and encouraging students to “find their voices.” Chicago math and creative math approaches won’t fly to meet mastery requirements. Teachers and school systems are flailing about this. In general, I think Common Core is a positive shift in American education. More fear than facts surround the debates on Common Core.


Schools and teachers are freaking out because their own education—younger and college—has not rooted them in classical literature and primary source analysis. They are afraid as to how they can teach to this curriculum which seems so high-aiming. They are terrified that student outcomes on Common Core standards will affect their job performance (these concerns are no different than fears of MA State Standards and MCAS).

Conservatives (of which I claim myself a usually proud member) are reacting to the word “common,” and assuming this means federal control—or a further extension of our move toward greater socialism (“com”munism). That which is “common” suggests the communal, which any right-minded parent would fear in our crappy culture.

Christians/Catholics fear the general trend in our entire culture toward that which is secular, anti-faith oriented, and special interest-group motivated. Because current school standards and text selected are so amiss, there is the assumption that “common” standards will lead us further down this disastrous road.

While David Coleman and company are not Christian in orientation, they reclaim American’s civic culture and they reaffirm the value of classical literature. In so doing, this helps guide us back toward texts that encourage values that are compatible with classical American civic culture and with Judeo-Christian ethics.

Common Core also challenges teachers and schools to move more solidly into preparing students in an information-age. To that end, students must learn how to discern sources, read for bias, and research effectively online. They also encourage keyboarding skills for early composing online. So, there are folks afraid of the Internet and more technology in the learning process, adding their concerns to the whole.

I think Common Core reclaims good stuff in education, while also preparing students for the Information-age. I think David Coleman’s a pragmatist, who has discerned good stuff from the past, quality research, with effective methodologies. A good pragmatist can be a welcome companion in our culture-war charged political environment. Not everything is so cleanly polarizing, and Common Core strikes a hopeful balance.

Honestly, I’m skeptical, but I don’t really have the time or inclination to do a lot of reading of the Common Core materials. When I’ve glanced at them I’ve felt the victim of information overload. I can’t begin to make heads or tails of all of it.  Has anyone done the research? How can Esolen declare the Core antithetical to Classical Education and this mother declare the opposite?

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • I have never read any of Koontz’s books, but I checked out the Odd Thomas series on Amazon based on this post and they are intriguing.  I was thinking about starting with the first trilogy.  Do think that would be a good place to start having no previous experience with Koontz, or would you recommend starting somewhere else?  Thanks!

  • +JMJ+

    I’ve read only one Dean Koontz so far; unfortunately, it wasn’t one of his best. I can’t remember the title, but it was the one with all the golden retrievers. I think he actually put me off the breed for life! =P

    What made me want to read one of his novels was a comment he made in an interview about the portrayal of evil. He said that he never makes evil look glamourous or sexy, because in reality it is pathetic and banal. And for all the novel’s flaws, it totally delivered when it came to that. No one could read that story and admire the villains for being “cool” anti-heroes. The moral choice, as perfectly communicated by the writing, is *not* to be them.

  • Marie, I think Odd Thomas is a good place to start. Koontz’s writing can be hit or miss for me, but I do think Odd Thomas has a very Catholic bent.

    Enbrethiliel, He does have a thing about dogs…. I’m not a doggy person, so I kind of shrug that off. I do think he delivers in not making evil look glamorous. I think you’d have to be very far gone indeed to read one of his books and think the villain was attractive. And he often heaps scorn on that point of view. (Kind of an aside, but one of my favorite moments in Deeply Odd was when all the satanic cult members are wearing Christmas sweaters. There is something deeply grotesque about it, but creepily funny too. It is not at all endearing.)

  • Okay, I’m sold. I’ve always avoided Koontz because I’m not into horror but I’ve just read Sailing to Sarantium (and enjoyed it) and am halfway through In This House of Brede (was that one of your suggestions?) so I’ll look for the Odd Thomas books, too.

  • Oh cool. Glad you liked Sailing to Sarantium. We’ll have to chat about it sometime. Brede was definitely a suggestion of mine.