Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Why (almost) Nobody Can Read”

  1. I recollect reading somewhere — how’s that for sourcing — that St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle pioneered the use of same-level grades to educate middle class boys. Working class boys and upper class boys were already taught by apprenticeship/squiring. He proposed that the middle class be taught in the vernacular, all together from the same text, by brothers whose sole profession was the teaching of children. The classes were to be of equal attainment, not necessarily of equal age. Anyhow, he ran into much opposition to this but eventually prevailed and his Brothers of the Christian Schools are still around today. Indeed, I attended LaSalle College in Philadelphia.

    1. Thanks. Grades based on attainment are still somewhat at least based on the needs of the child, rather than the ‘needs’ of the school. IIRC, la Salle also faced an endless shortage of qualified teachers and so had to group kids somehow. The idea that you’re in a class because you need to learn the same things as every other kid in the class is nothing like the idea that you are in a class because you happen to be 7. You could ‘test out’, so to speak.

      These days we have the horror of being flunked or – maybe as bad – being advanced. My beloved, daughter of 2 teachers, was ‘ahead’ of her class so much that they kicked her up a grade (Catholic school) and would have kicked her up two grades, except she was such a wisp of a child they feared to put her in with the larger kids 2 years older than she. (That’s how I became a cradle robber, as she is 5 years younger than I – she was a 17 year old freshman when I was a 22 year old 5th yr senior). Anyway, the point here is that even in cases where kids are finally moved because they are too much outliers to function with their age-class, it’s not a happy, normal thing – I doubt that situation prevailed in la Salle’s schools (apart from general dislike of smarty-pants).

      In general, I’ve not commented on the various Catholic modes of education, because a lot of it is schooling as a function of charity and gets muddy. Don Bosco’s schools, for example, were first and foremost orphanages for homeless boys, who needed structure, father figures, discipline before you could even think about educating them. So that they come off as highly structured schools is a bit of an illusion or accident.

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