Archives For Literacy

Civilized Savages

June 24, 2014 — 13 Comments

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).

_____

An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.

scandinavians

Dislike emoticonEmoticons. Some people love them. Others find them irritating. I’m in the latter camp. That’s why I enjoyed a comic in the paper this week.* A fifty-something husband and wife are talking as she’s typing on her desktop.

Jeannie: I wish I was a little more computer-literate.

Charlie: I don’t really care for that term.

Jeannie: Why not?

Charlie: I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.

I am forced to respond with a wholehearted “ditto!”

I find the evolution of alphabets fascinating. Primitive pictographs amaze me. Emoticons, not so much.

I have to admit that I occasionally use the primitive :) to indicate that something is intended to be humorous, rather than serious. It has served as useful shorthand for written speech, conveying what would be evident in the intonations of oral communication.

However, this nouveau-punctuation has mutated into an abomination. Today there are innumerable graphic variations of that once modest “smile.” And some of them are truly bizarre.

Emoticons run amuck are an evidence of humanity’s demand for novelty. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis shows how an incessant demand for something new saps the joy out of the present moment. As the senior demonic tempter declares:

Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. . . . Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up. This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire.

I realize it’s a bit of a stretch to apply this passage to the subject at hand, but the principle remains the same. When is enough enough? When it comes to emoticons, apparently, that level has yet to be reached. 

I am not seriously suggesting that there is a conspiracy going on here, but one never knows.

Please forgive me if I have offended any Mere Inkling readers who may suffer from emoticonaddiction or some other disorder. It is not my desire to upset you. Feel free to continue your unbridled (ab)use of these tiny monstrosities.

Simply include me (and C.S. Lewis) alongside Charlie in saying, “I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.”

Postscript: I must confess to finding one set of emoticons rather amusing. If you are familiar with Spock from Star Trek, you too may enjoy these Vulcan emoticons that exhibit the full range of Vulcan expression.

vulcan

_____

* You can see the strip I am referring to here.

 

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely. Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.

It may be so. There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them. Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Recycling Literature

July 15, 2013 — 16 Comments

recycled pageMany subscribers to Mere Inkling share a common trait with C.S. Lewis. Like your humble blogger, you are lovers of books. We don’t need to apologize for it; it’s in our DNA.

We carry that astonishing gene that manifests itself in a passion for the written word. (It’s frequently inherited from a parent who possessed the same ardor.)

If you’re one of this corpus of literary addicts, you just nod your head in agreement whenever you hear Lewis’ oft-quoted, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

If you love books, if you don’t mind owning copies that others before you have enjoyed, and if you are on a tight budget, you might want to join me in becoming a customer of Better World Books.

[I have no interest in this nonprofit organization other than genuinely commending them to you as a wonderful source of inexpensive books. Most books have been officially removed from library collections . . . and require new homes. The “profits” are directed towards libraries and literacy programs.]

Many of us have enjoyed walking through rows of books on sale in local settings. This is a little like that, except that you can do digital searches and they have tons more titles available. (Literally.)

One of my recent purchases was Latin for the Illiterati. I purchased it the same day I bought The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations (for a secret project I’m working on).

Latin for the Illiterati includes “common phrases and familiar sayings,” that the reader is now able to decipher when encountered in classical literature. References do not have to be ancient to be included. For example, “salus populi suprema lex esto,” which means “the welfare of the people is the supreme law.” (But I didn’t need to translate that for you residents of Missouri, since it’s your own state motto.)

Quick test, which state has this as its motto? “Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet,” which means “the voice that is heard perishes, the letter that is written remains.” Actually, I cheated a bit, I don’t think it is any government’s motto, but it certainly is a truism that will resonate with readers!

C.S. Lewis valued rereading good books. In a 1915 letter, he wrote, “There is something awfully nice about reading a book again, with all the half-unconscious memories it brings back.”

In that same spirit, the following year he wrote to the same friend, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.”

As I said, he was explicitly referring to revisiting a work already read. Nevertheless, I believe he would agree with the broader sense of his words . . . that it is a sad thing to see a book destined never to be read again.

Whether or not I am correct is irrelevant. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of books awaiting new homes. I don’t doubt that many of them “deserve” to be recycled for their raw materials. However, I also believe that the majority of them remain capable of teaching and inspiring. After all, litera scripta manet, right?

Knowing Our ABCs

November 28, 2012 — 12 Comments

Most readers are familiar with the amazing story of Jeanne D’ Arc (Joan of Arc). She was a French peasant who received visions which proved accurate. She foresaw victory for a humbled nation which had not experienced a major military victory for an entire generation.

Jeanne led the army of the Dauphin (the heir to France’s throne who would reign as Charles VII) to unimaginable victories. She was seriously wounded but inspired her troops with her swift return to battle. She counseled, and prayed for mercy, but recognized England could only be repulsed from French shores by force.

Tragically, she was captured and the English, following a sham trial, judged her guilty of heresy. Jeanne was only nineteen when she perished in flames in an English blaze. Just twenty-five years later, a special court convened by the Pope found her “not guilty” of the crime, and proceeded to declare her a martyr. She was canonized in 1920, nearly five centuries after her brief but brilliant life.

Recently, while reading more about her life I was reminded of something startling she said during her first “inquisition.” When she originally presented herself to the Dauphin, no one could believe a modest young farm girl could be France’s rescuer. A commission of inquiry, comprised of a number of senior clergy, offered the Dauphin a “favorable presumption” that she might, indeed, have divine sanction.

During that “trial,” she was vigorously questioned. The following account comes from Medieval History by Israel Smith Clare.

It is very interesting to see how she evaded the difficulties, overcame the objections, and quietly set aside the learned cavils of the doctors by the simplicity and directness of her replies. They first asked her what signs she could show them to prove her mission. She answered: “I have not come to Poitiers to show a sign. Give me some men-at-arms and lead me to Orleans, and I will then show you signs. The sign I am to give is to raise the siege of Orleans.” One of the [theological] doctors responded thus: “But if God wished to deliver the city he could do it without soldiers.” Jeanne replied: “The soldiers will fight, and God will give them the victory.” Brother Seguin of Limousin asked her, in his provincial dialect, in what idiom her angels spoke. She answered: “In a better idiom than yours.” Said he, somewhat angrily: “Do you believe in God?” Jeanne replied: “I have more faith in God than you have.” The sharp man was thus silenced.

Still the doctors proceeded with their examinations, asking repeated questions and suggesting many learned difficulties. Said Jeanne: “Why do you ask me all these things? I do not know even my A, B, C; but I have come, by God’s command, to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the king.” Having nothing more to say, the doctors finally decided in the maiden’s favor, to which they were somewhat influenced by the great reverence which she inspired among the people of Poitiers by her holiness and piety . . .

Jeanne’s final comment which stands out. The fact that she was illiterate was, to her, no disgrace. She was confident God had chosen her to accomplish the historic events which surely followed.

We live in an era where nearly all adults in the industrialized world are literate. Even in less privileged lands, literacy rates hover around fifty percent.

We—especially those of us who love words and write—tend to look down on those who are not as eloquent as we consider ourselves to be. A woman like Jeanne reminds us that one need not be educated to be truly eloquent. She put the ecclesiastical patricians in their proper place. And rubbed their proverbial noses in it, when she emphasized her illiteracy. Devout, courageous, humble . . . and sarcastic toward condescending clerics—I’m eager to one day meet her!

While knowing one’s ABCs bears little correlation to personal virtue or merit, literacy is essentially a good thing. How impoverished our lives would be if books were sealed to us and we could not be transported to novel places and new epiphanies in their pages.

C.S. Lewis shared this awareness that illiteracy was something that could bar some from experiencing life’s most important treasures. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, he draws a wonderful picture of the relationship between the image and the word. In this allegory, the Landlord represents God.

“. . . The Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. What use are Rules to people who cannot read?”

“But nearly everyone can.”

“No one is born able to read: so that the starting point for all of us must be a picture and not the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, or who, at the best, never learn to read well.”

“And for those people the pictures are the right thing?”

“I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk at the beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son. That, I say, is the best: never to have known the quarrel between the Rules and the pictures. But it very rarely happens. The Enemy’s agents are everywhere at work, spreading illiteracy in one district and blinding men to the pictures in another. . . . As often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way.”

“. . . The Landlord succeeded in getting a lot of
messages through.”

“. . . These pictures woke desire.”

“. . . And then the Pagans made mistakes. They would keep on trying to get the same picture again: and if it didn’t come, they would make copies of it for themselves. Or even if it did come they would try to get out of it not desire but satisfaction.”

Elsewhere, in the essay “Some Thoughts” in God in the Dock, Lewis expressly (and correctly) declares literacy itself as one of the things for which Europe should be grateful to the Church.

[One looking at] Christian activities which are, in a sense directed toward this present world . . . would find that this religion had, as a mere matter of historical fact, been the agent which preserved such secular civilisation as survived the fall of the Roman Empire; that to it Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilised agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood.

Biblical Illiteracy

October 17, 2011 — Leave a comment

A person does not have to be religious to recognize the importance of the Ten Commandments on western civilization, literature and life. Even when one disregards their intrinsic merit, their literary significance remains. That said, it is important that those who consider themselves well educated should be acquainted with the message of this foundational document.

The statistics reveal a rather surprising picture. It turns out sixty percent of Americans cannot identify even half of the commandments. What I find stunning about that is the fact that since they are mostly prohibitions of destructive behavior, even the illiterate should be able to guess half of them. “Okay . . . we shouldn’t commit murder . . . steal from others . . . or lie about and slander others.” Pretty common sense, and we’re already over halfway there.

“Let’s see . . . the commandments are about God, so there’s probably one that says ‘worship the real God.’” Simple logic, and we’ve nearly arrived. Four out of the five and it wasn’t all that challenging. But how do we arrive at a fifth commandment? Here are two possible paths:

“Oh, doesn’t ‘religion’ believe that it’s sinful to cheat on your spouse . . . that’s probably on the list.”

or

“What’s that weird word the Bible uses about wanting stuff that belongs to others . . . oh yeah, ‘coverting’ or something like that . . . we’re not supposed to desire the possessions of others.”

Since our world has programmed us all with insatiable materialistic desires, it’s probably unlikely that someone would “guess” that coveting our neighbor’s property is wrong, so let’s substitute a more likely alternative.

“Christians get so worked up about swearing, especially when people curse using ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . so there’s probably something about that in the Ten Commandments.”

Congratulations, we’ve reached our goal of five.

As for the enumeration of the commandments—which varies among Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant communions—that’s a subject for another day.

Addendum:

Don’t forget the observance of this commandment which would transform our world: “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”