Literacy: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I came across a set of statistics recently that quite literally shocked me. Yet, I must admit that part of the shock involved my own presuppositions and, quite possibly, my own prejudices. That is, I assume other people to be much like myself to a greater or lesser degree. Because I carry that assumption, I can tend to be rattled when I find out that this is not the case. This is especially the case with the reading of books.
Anyone who is familiar with my posts knows that I tend to be “bookish”. To be honest, I always have been. When I was young, it was pointed out to me that, “You always have your nose stuck in a book”. Having a career as a priest, an academic and writer, only increased that propensity. Even today I tend to have at least three books going at the same time. Currently, I have an audible book on ‘The History of the Renaissance World’ by Susan W. Bauer, that I listen to on my walks and in the car. At my desk, I am working through ‘On the Road with St. Augustine’ by J.K.A. Smith. Finally, for my night time reading, I’m most of the way through ‘The Houses of McKim, Mead and White’ by Samuel G. White. This, of course, is in addition to various online blogs and posts and the essential monthly delivery and reading cover to cover of Rolling Stone!
This, however, is a far cry from the past when I might average reading three to five books in any given week simply as a part of my job. Moreover, I have tended to be around ‘fellow travelers’ (even on this blog). That is, people who are equally as “bookish” and who like to talk and write about what they have been reading. Owing to all of this, I can be lulled into somehow thinking that, to a lesser or greater degree, this is the norm.
It is not the norm.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the first two months of 2019, roughly a quarter of all US adults (27%) say that they have not read a book, in whole or in part, in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. In fact, currently, some 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate and cannot read above a fifth-grade level. Of the total population of the US, 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level. Looking into the future, the fact that 57% of students failed the California Standards Test in English, must be a cause for concern, if not alarm. Online, a worrying trend is that copy editors often instruct their writers to present their pieces at a sixth-grade level.
While I have often written that Christ came to found a Church, not a library, this issue of literacy and the concurrent issue of believing that a quick search of the internet is the equivalent of research should concern us all. In the course of the history of the Church, two revolutions may be directly connected to the use of books as the essential tool for both the propagation of the faith and knowledge of the faith. The first revolution was the invention of the codex, the historical ancestor of the modern book. Instead of a scroll which could only be referenced by unrolling and searching the entire text, the codex placed individual leaves of vellum or another material into a form we recognize today. The codex form became associated with the rise of early Christianity as the most efficient way to carry and disseminate the Gospels, the letters of the Apostles and the books and letters of the early Christian writers. The growth of literacy in the Church, especially in the first four centuries, was directly related to the ease of using the codex format and being able to make comparisons with other texts.
The second revolution was also related to books and literacy. It was, of course, Gutenberg’s invention of printing with moveable type in the 1450s. A manuscript codex, handwritten and labor intensive, was not only expensive, but required time to produce, often years. Printing with moveable type was efficient and relatively inexpensive, allowing the wide distribution of classic texts from antiquity, the Scriptures, ancient Christian writers, Greek and Hebrew grammars, and essays and books by the thinkers and writers of the day, such as Erasmus, Thomas More and Luther. Had Luther’s 95 Theses simply been left as one copy nailed to a door, who knows if the Reformation would have taken place at all. The fact, however, that they were printed and widely distributed within a matter of days changed everything. Not only that, but those who read the 95 Theses could access their own libraries for those writings that either corroborated or challenged what Luther had written. During the remainder of the Reformation era, the debates and controversies would be based upon wide reading in the classics and Church Fathers, all made available through printing. In the Reformation, the wide dissemination of both ancient and contemporary materials allowed a literate clergy and laity to have a sense of “theological ownership” within the various offshoots from Wittenberg, to Geneva, to Canterbury and, yes, in Rome as well.
Today, we are facing another revolution. It is, of course, digital.
Now, I am not a Luddite. A Kindle, a tablet or a laptop can present you with the pages of a book as efficiently and as well as a book with a sumptuous leather binding and gilt edged pages. That is not the question. The question is, can a quick internet search for an answer replace the wide reading, with comprehension, that we have understood in the past to be necessary to arrive at a considered conclusion? I recently saw a meme by a frustrated seminary graduate that said, “Please Do Not Confuse Your Google Search With my Theology Degree!”. While I think that he may have overstated the case, it does perhaps present us with the digital quandary and how it effects the Church. Christian formation is closely allied with Christian education. Both formation and education presume the provision of a wide base of knowledge and experience. Whether we wish to admit it or not, they also assume a level of literacy that may be greatly impaired at present. Addressing that impairment may be our challenge for sometime to come, not only in society at large, but in the Church as well.