literacyThere is exponentially more to literacy than what meets the eye. The distinction between material and formal literacy does not indicate movement on a linear graph, but an organic three-dimensional expansion of intellectual apprehension into previously undiscovered realms. The claims believers make about materially undiscoverable countries and the transcendent origin of language evokes ire and insults from those tethered to the dank land on the cave floor. But a man’s disbelief in transcendent truth is not constituent of the fabric of reality; it is only the denial of it. Denial of self-evident and common-sense truths is paradoxically a way for a man to puff himself up while his boundaries drastically diminish. Materialists can’t really read because they have willfully blinded themselves to the vast majority of reality available to the human mind, and one can’t read what he can’t see. A brief examination of the three stages of literacy will illustrate the limits of a materialist’s ability to read rightly and demonstrate why the saints can read fully.

The Shadow Stage

The initial stage of literacy is the shadow stage. Plato provides an ideal example of what literacy is at this stage. It is perceiving and rendering judgment about things as they appear. At the bottom of Plato’s cave the prisoners are bound by the chains of ignorance and false ideals. They are unaware of the fetters and in fact perceive themselves to be free. By the false firelight on the bridge behind the bound prisoners, the men hold things up so they cast shadows on the back of the cave wall where the prisoners’ gaze is involuntarily captive. The babble concerning the shadows ebbs and flows. In the cave, it is accepted that consensus among enslaved souls judging solely by the appearances of things is the highest order of truth.

The fields that best exemplify and operate within the limits of the shadow stage of literacy are found in the material sciences. By scientific revolution, new paradigms are proclaimed victorious at the funerals of vanquished theories. The only permanent feature of this ethereal realm is that the current truth will die and be replaced by a new truth, and the process will go on until the end of time. This is clearly evident in physics as we have seen the Copernican revolution give way to Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc…. The currently dreadful fields of psychology, education, and too many more to name, which have been scientifically reduced, are constantly revising their truths as well, and the victory celebration of the new truths imbue them with a certain level of enthusiasm which is the determinant of their specific longevity. Once these temporary declarations of truth die, they become, as Dan Robinson so eloquently put it, “cadavers upon which we can discover the anatomy of confusion.”

A prime example of the shadow stage is the specific field of literacy instruction currently in operation in the public schools. It is exclusively limited to the appearances of literacy development and has been for generations. We have seen countless degraded and failed literacy programs implemented since the 1970s, and every one of them has been dismal. They have been grounded in the shadow work of decoding and interpreting the written word by self-reference. This is the pinnacle of modern, scientifically-reduced pedagogy. The driving force for revising this frightful field is myopic arrogance. The determinant source of change is useless data gleaned from meaningless exercises limited to the shadows of written words violently wrested from their true meanings.

The Image Stage

literacyThe second stage of literacy is the image stage. Words are the incarnations of ideas. As it was explained before, a word’s meaning is its image, and the image is the formal cause manifesting as the material cause of a word, the incarnation of an idea. Contrary to the shadow stage, which arrogates to the agent intellect the false authority to determine the meanings of words, those who pass into the image stage of literacy embark upon a journey of discovery to learn what words really mean.

Although it had been known from before the beginning of time that a word is intrinsically bound to its meaning and that a sign has a definite and purposeful connotation, the common sense truth of this notion has been long obscured, if not willfully forgotten, in this arrogant age. After nominalism, perhaps it was Descartes’ initial assertions of radical dualism that emboldened man to do to words what had been done to the perception of body and mind. For just as the mind is now considered separate from the body, so too are words considered separated from their meanings. These concepts untether man from his true self just as words have been separated from their true meanings. What ensues after one accepts this abstracted technical contrivance is confusion and chaos, until we witnesses the kind of moral and intellectual breakdown being prodigiously manifested in the West today.

The border between the shadow and the image stage of literacy is the boundary that demarcates the threshold that must be crossed to leave the land of shadows to enter the forests of formal literacy where one begins to see, not what he desires, but what is really there. If one travels to the frontier of the shadow lands of literacy and crosses over into the discovery that words and their meanings are inextricably composite entities, he will have crossed over from material literacy into the realm of formal literacy.

To move beyond the shadows of the cave, one must recover the truth that words by themselves are shadows pointing to their images just like the human body is the shadow of the human soul which is the image and likeness of God. The image stage is as far as the unaided mind can go by the use of natural reason and diligent study. We can discover by good intellectual work that words and their meanings are indissolubly one, and that therefore we must strive to be precise in our use of language to insure that we understand that the words we choose to use demonstrate the proper correspondence between the shadow and their image; otherwise we are not properly communicating, only misusing language.

The Reality Stage

The most advanced stage of literacy most accurately leads the agent intellect to its final end, that of reading reality rightly. We may well come to discover how to insure that our words correspond to their meanings and in doing so our speech may be rightly ordered and articulately expressive. Yet there is still work to be done as we learn that words and their images correspond to an ultimate reality that lies outside of time and space and beyond the realm of human perception.

literacyBy the gifts of revelation and aided by the Holy Spirit, we can come to understand the relationship among words, their meanings, and the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent Creator of the Universe who is the source of all language, all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. God is the origin and end of all words properly understood and properly used. Of course this is materially indemonstrable and likely to cause great offense to those dwelling in the cave of shadows. It is an article of faith to acquiesce to the ultimate truth about the nature of language. However, there have been many teachers in the past who may be able to be of some service in laying the groundwork so that the conditions to discover the truth about the nature of language may be cultivated.

Where to Begin

We might start by admitting that there is in fact an enormous literacy crisis among the so-called “literate class.” We might honestly recognize that our modern schools are not institutions of learning but houses of detention preparing future generations to be cogs in an economic machine which runs on ideological fuel.

The architects of modern curriculum and instruction are aptly characterized by Plato’s allegory of the cave as the men on the bridge holding up things that cast the shadows on the cave wall, while those shadows have been for too many generations the subject and content matter of our terrible instruction. The Common Core represents the most comprehensive incarnation of the dreadful work the schools do to shovel bucket loads of shadows into the heads of our children, an endeavor collapsing under the weight of its own immense meaninglessness.

Literacy is not an end, but the acquisition of which becomes a means to the end by cooperating with grace to have our natures perfected in the virtues. This is impossible if one does not see reality rightly. Authentic literacy is a prerequisite to prepare the conditions in the human soul to apprehend truth. Without it, all educational exercises are futile. What good does it do to read Shakespeare if one is not prepared to understand him? As I have said elsewhere, “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 idea is conspicuously absent from the modern school curriculum.

The educational architects would have students read Shakespeare simply to have said they have read Shakespeare, without a real concern for the actual content of his work, but for the shadow of his reputation. Formal literacy implies that one is prepared to see reality through the medium of symbols and signs conveyed by rightly ordered words in order to grapple with truth, that he may come to know, love, and eventually act upon the virtues discovered and avoid the vices. Let us begin by seeing modern pedagogy for what it is and cease acquiescing to it by our silence and stop participating in it by exposing our children to it.

Where to End

literacyThe three stages of literacy, if properly understood, explain the great disparity between materialist and authentic literacy. What does a materialist understand when he reads by the lights of the shadow stage of material literacy? If he reads Dante’s Inferno? He sees tortuous judgmentalism. If he reads St. Augustine’s City of God? He sees scientific error. If he reads Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ? He sees inappropriate self-abuse. If he reads the tenets of the Catholic Faith? He sees brainwashing and patriarchal domination. He is incapable of reading anything holy and true without seeing falsehood, deceit, and abuse.

What does the soul in possession of formal literacy see when he reads these same works? In Dante’s Inferno he sees an inspired account of the nature of sin and its consequences. In the City of God he learns about the requirements to be a citizen of Heaven. If he reads The Imitation of Christ he learns about the self-emptying love of Christ and of the chasm that lies between our inclinations and our call to Christ’s twin commandments. The formally literate soul is incapable of reading these works without being intensely moved by their profound depth of truth, goodness, and beauty. Not only can he read and be transformed by the greatest literary works in history, he is appropriately repelled by the incoherence of the new literacy methods and the current lurid scribblings that populate the bestsellers’ lists.

Let us end with the truth about literacy. Words themselves are signs composite with their meanings intended to be discovered, not determined by curricular architects designing conveyance methods for modern ideologies. Let us emerge from the cave of shadows and live in the real light of reason as we prepare our souls to receive the light of reality by the gifts of our Creator. Material literacy steeped in self-reference is what binds us to imperceptible illiteracy. Our children deserve better than that, and it is our duty to arm them against the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune that embodies the false literacy in our public schools.

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Published: Oct 23, 2015
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A school teacher, he is also a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. Mr. Rummelsburg is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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14 replies to this post
  1. This is an excellent essay. I’ve long felt that there was something qualitatively different between reading the church fathers, for example, and reading what passes for Christian literature today. This essay has helped me to begin to articulate in my own thinking what that qualitative difference is.

    I do have questions, though, that keep me from fully understanding what is argued here. Let’s take a translation of Dante’s Inferno, for example. I think everyone recognizes that something is lost in translating a great work of literature. But the fact is, translation is still possible. It is possible to understand the meaning of Dante’s words in Italian, and then express that meaning in English. Are we not then extracting – separating – the meaning from the Italian form, and giving it new form in English? How are we able to put things “in other words” at all, if we are not somehow separating form from meaning?

    These are the objections that my mind presents, despite my sensing that there is truth in this essay. I’d appreciate your interaction on this point!


  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your good words and even better questions! You might ask the same questions about different translations of the Bible- from St. Jerome’s coming from the Hebrew and Greek and into Latin, then perhaps the Douay Rheims- Of course we are indeed able to use words from one language and translate them into another language and still remain as faithful as is humanly possible to the true intent of the image and reality of the words- in the case of Sacred Literature, depending upon the extent to which the author submits his will to the Will of the Father, this is aided by the power of the Holy Spirit to convey truth by analogical fidelity- There is after all only one perfect Word, the Logos and all words that are not the perfect Word can only get at the Truth by analogy. However, there is a danger and it is not empirically observable- the questions revolve around the context of the words, the intent and integrity of the author and if in fact the thing written or spoken does in real terms convey accurately the image and reality intended by the true author. We can enjoy a faithful rendition of Dante’s Inferno in English but you may notice it is accompanied by copious notes that help us to see the relationship between the incarnation of the words, their meanings and connection to reality. This is less necessary when reading the original Italian.

    This conversation is doubly convoluted in this age of ideology and radical individualism. It is increasingly difficult to find teachers who acquiesce to the authentic nature of language as a gift flowing from the Creator. Once we abandon that truth for the subjective opinion that man created language all bets are off. Relativism makes this conversation moot and a cursory look at the many theories about the origin of language dizzies the mind and renders the search for truth about language a journey through Daedalus’ Labyrinth sure to end in being gored by the Minotaur of subjectivism. Please continue this conversation.

  3. This business of translation has always bothered me. I am limited to English and a smattering of Spanish, and even there, realize there are things which are said in Spanish that will not translate precisely. Language is a mental map of reality, and being limited to one language restricts one’s perception of reality.

    I frankly lament the decline in education which began a century back, when secondary school students were taught Latin and Greek. I have a friend who was raised on Malta, and in that system, had to learn English, French, Italian, Latin, and Malteese (and I never knew Malta had a separate language from Italian.)

    With further “dumbing down” into the bare bones of STEM subjects (in order to serve the Moloch of the modern economy), the situation will only grow worse. Alas. (Alas, Babylon.)

  4. Wow! I am amazed at your articulation of our current pedagogical paradigm via-a-vis the ultimate purpose and function of education. As a public school teacher, I’m always infusing “truth”, virtue, etc., in to the everyday curriculum, especially when discussing themes in literature. Sadly, our public schools intentional adoption of secularist dogma has left minimal room for us to progress further in to the light. Thus, I conclude with a query: If indeed our very soul hungers for ultimate meaning, purpose, and truth, then how can we use that innate advantage to shape public policy in truth’s favor?

    • Hector,
      I was a 6th grade teacher in the public schools in California for decades, so we share that in common. I believe that the only goodness left in the public schools is the children themselves and the few teachers who, like you, try their best to infuse truth into the truth resistant curriculum. I don’t believe there is any light in the public school system and that to try to bring truth into it remains unintelligible for those with teaching certificates-

      Your query is too big to address, but I think it is a great question- I will be thinking it over for quite some time.

      Keep up the good fight!

      • What do you mean by “truth”?
        Your truth? Which is simply but one idea of what may be truth, that to many is as truthful as secularism.

        • Hello Iralie. By truth I mean the pursuit of truth; the quest for ultimate understanding and wisdom. Secularism and the other “isms” have concluded that truth either doesn’t exist or that it is impossible to attain. They have abandoned the good fight, that part of life which is most meaningful and purposeful. Plato stated long ago that it is understandable when a child is afraid of the dark, but that “the real tragedy is men who are afraid of the light.” The “isms” are frightened to even ask if such truth exist. All I’m saying is that we should have room and tolerance in our culture for the quest and pursuit of this ultimate truth.

        • Iralie- there is no “my truth” here- that would be subjective and most likely opinion- like a bunch of people who hold that secularism is “truth”

          but… the truth is the truth no matter what anyone thinks of it, for as st. Pope John Paul II said “the truth is not consensus but the convergence of the mind and reality.” If the whole world is deluded and believes that secularism is the truth, that says nothing about its veracity or falsity.

          So when I speak of truth it is the Truth, the ultimate Truth, the Truth that is a person, the person of Jesus Christ, in a word the Logos. In so far as our words correspond to the Logos they are true in so far as they deviate they are false-

          Self reference is a fairly certain mark of error- those who would seek the Truth can only do so by reference to the Objective Standard, so my opinion on truth matters as little as the secularists- the real question is whether or not Christ is who He revealed Himself to be, and if the answer is “yes” then He is the Truth.

          that is The Truth, what is your truth?

          • I see your truth there, not made any the more valid by sharing it with a few million others and an ancient book.
            As for my own truth? That we should not impose any truths on anyone or society at large. While teaching people how to critically asses ideas and to find their own truth.

            Jesus may well have been who he revealed himself to be, but his teachings and message do not seem to have made it through to the Bible, let alone modern Christianity. His teachings of oneness and the divinity of all humanity and to love are far more important than the specifics of what or in any anthropomorphic deity.

  5. Iralie, your words are nonsensical– isn’t your statement that we ought not to impose any truths on society your wish to impose this “truth” on others? of course you can’t see the self-contradiction here, but think of how wrong you are- even you might say that we impose the truth that we ought not to rape, kill, and steal from others, or should we not impose that truth on others? I bet you would- and thus your words above are disingenuous, or you have no real idea of what you are saying.

    On Jesus and the Bible, do you know Jesus better than the inerrant word of God reveals Him? You know His teachings and yet claim they are not in the Bible? Oneness? the divinity of all humanity? Love? You would have to superimpose your own anthropomorphizing of the One True God to support your claims- This type of thing will not go over well at a place like the Imaginative Conservative.

    • So the idea of teaching people to find their own truth is somehow in direct opposition to your truth? Which I presume then must be presented and assimilated uncritically otherwise people being given skills to help them search for a truth would not invalidate any truth they choose.

      The inerrant word of God? You realise that the Bible is a collection of books written by humans, translated by humans, and interpreted by humans.
      How would my claims require an anthropomorphised deity? I claim that any divineness is too alien and non-human to have a care for what people do. God is too beyond us.
      Jesus’ message is clear that it is love for everyone and a disregard for organisation and hierarchy. Everyone has a personal connection to the divine through their self as we are all the children of god. These messages have been suppressed in most modern bible readings, and mainstream Christianity.

      • Iralie, who is such a person that they might help another find the truth? Do you know such a one? Did someone help you discover the truth? a subjective “truth” is invalidated by its lack of correspondence to reality. We are not free to choose a particular “truth” but free to search for truth which is no guarantee that one will discover it. So whatever it is that you are trying to say, the answer is no, teaching people does not contradict truth, it depends upon the subject matter and presentation of the teacher- sadly most “teachers” today are not concerned with Truth, but information- so very little truth in our schools, if any at all.

        Clearly you know little about the Bible- but it makes me ask, if God is too beyond us, how do you know Jesus’ message? What is your source? It sounds like you have made up your own version of Christianity with your claims about God’s messages, but clearly it comes from you head not from any authoritative source- Jesus had no disregard for organization and hierarchy, Jesus is the embodiment of order and truth- so it sounds here as if you have made up your own religion, otherwise why else speak if you don’t want to impose your own personal order on things? And by the way, the fact that you would like that order to be no order at all is terribly incoherent, but welcome to the club, you are not the first to try this.

        • Steven, reality itself is subjective. Each of us has our own reality with its subtle differences.
          That is a truth, whether you choose to accept it as part of your The Truth is up to you.

          I know about Jesus’ message from reading the Bible, at least the books that matter – the New Testament canon is a human construct that I’m sure even you’ll agree with me on.
          I also gained knowledge from talking to Christians from a wide variety of denominations. I find that Quakers seem to be the denomination of Christianity I have most in common with.

          I would point to the fact that Jesus emphasised his status as “son of man” and the rest of humanity he called children of God as one of the parts of the New Testament that supports my reading of it. Another being that the idea of a hierarchical church is in no way present or supported by Jesus’ teachings. That is a latter addition by humans looking to control humans, which alas is so often the way when brilliant people bring us revelatory ideas on how humans should live.

  6. Steven; how do we answer the call to observance of reality for the majority of Christians throughout history, who were completely illiterate? What of those with mental retardation, and those in coma or vegetative state? Do you require that one must be formally literate in order to acquire reality of God? I believe that literacy is strictly indicative of spiritual maturation, but not the substance of it.

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