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Christian Teaching in a Post-Literate Society

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

Readers of Covenant are, it’s safe to say, readers of many other things as well. Not only blog essays, news stories, and meditations like those published here, but perhaps also commentaries, spiritual writings, books of theology and history, some science and technology as the mood strikes, and fiction and poetry to grow the soul.

Whatever and however much you read, you have likely long ago accepted a few premises.

  • The spiritual and intellectual worlds are real.
  • Spiritual realities and intellectual ideas also profoundly affect the concrete world of politics, economics, relationships, and art.
  • The written word is a vital tool in allowing us to work with these important ideas — not only by putting us within reach of conversation partners far from us in time and space, but also by allowing us to consider ideas with more complexity than we could if we were formed only through speech.

Those of us who hold these assumptions are courting a special kind of culture shock now. While the centrality of literacy to American society (and beyond) has been on the decline for several decades, the process has quickened in just the last 12 years. About 21 percent of American adults are now functionally illiterate, with 54 percent below a sixth-grade reading level. In 2022, 42 percent of students who took the ACT — a record high — failed to meet any of its college readiness benchmarks; only 22 percent met all four.

While some learning loss can be attributed to the COVID pandemic, last year’s low scores are not an anomaly, but the fifth consecutive year of decline in average scores. Scholars dispute how literacy should be measured, and whether we can really speak of a problematic decline; what they all seem to admit is that text-based reading levels have been on the decline since about the 1970s.

What the ACT board’s report does not mean, however, is that a lower percentage of applicants are being accepted to college; rather, colleges are under financial pressure to recruit and accept as many students as they can. The result is that more students are entering college without the levels of literacy they need for mature learning.

In contrast, declining numbers of academic jobs mean that instructors are more likely to be published researchers — leading to a baffling spread in job requirements, along with less commonality between the backgrounds of teachers and their students. (While my experience focuses on the college and seminary setting, changing reading levels certainly also affect lay education in parishes.)

My last two years’ experience of teaching in a non-selective college is what forced me to grapple with the meaning of these trends. Most students I taught had never come to feel at home in the world of texts. Instead, they were uncomfortable strangers, eager to leave the unpleasant experience as quickly as possible. They could recognize and understand basic words, but they needed me to define vocabulary like “conscientious,” “duress,” and “utility.”

Sentence-level reading comprehension was a challenge, which made paragraph-level comprehension beyond the reach of most — let alone the ability to see relationships between paragraphs well enough to follow an argument. (The texts I’m thinking of include popular books on religion, ethics, and culture written at the level you’d find in The Atlantic.) Because my first-year students were simply not equipped to read effectively on their own — and, discouraged, often didn’t try — it was impossible to host meaningful discussions on assigned readings. My teaching became dramatically more successful when I began reading the assigned texts aloud with students in class. Doing so, however, showed me that only a small minority could read aloud fluently.

Yet more challenging to me, however, has been the realization that behind students’ inability to read, there often lies a failure to believe in texts’ power to compel. I noted how commonly students simply sweep good arguments to the side: not feeling obliged to claim that an author is either wrong or right, students might come to grasp an idea and accept that it is well done, but never feel their own thinking to be implicated in it. Ideas contained in written language, it seems, simply don’t pertain to them. Written ideas are a fantasy world to which one would need to opt in.

For someone like me, with a vocation to Christian teaching, this shift in the social importance of reading poses deeply challenging questions. On a personal level: of what real use is our training in the “great [written] conversation,” and to whom? On a societal level: how does a culture change when it becomes less socially important to be able to exchange ideas, patiently, in text form? What is the historical norm for literacy, anyway? If we go back to lower levels of literacy, does it really matter? And on a theological level: is something more than nostalgia at stake for Christians when fewer people believe reading really matters?

While my understanding of and response to these changes must always be in progress, I am confident of a few things now.

  1. We absolutely must rise above the curmudgeonly temptation to think, “Kids these days!” If it means anything like “Young people should just make better choices,” it’s no use — no more than looking for some failure of personal character that has led to three-fourths of Americans being overweight or obese. Like the systemic problems that oppose using and feeding our bodies so they will thrive, the same trends and more are working against the training of patient, reading minds. Individuals and families can buck the trends, but it is increasingly hard work, and one’s chances of departing from present norms depend more than ever on special opportunities and countercultural beliefs inherited from family. For most people, there is very little that encourages, and much that discourages, the development of the focused attention it takes to read great books. So, when people don’t read well or don’t value reading, it’s not that they have ever knowingly chosen a decadent way of living. They simply haven’t experienced reading as a centerpiece of life’s fullness.
  2. We also do well to recognize that, whatever else is on the line, much is at stake personally for those of us who are at home in texts. We must acknowledge the heartache of finding that our painstaking investment in texts and old conversations may not be widely valued, and that things near to our heart are ignored by many. In other words, underlying all our arguments about the importance of books and history are probably feelings of irrelevance and loneliness. If we are charged with teaching, but we haven’t addressed our experience of personal loss, it will affect our teaching, and not for the better.
  3. At the same time, we can build courage and joy by refreshing our vision of what the vocation of teaching really is. Rather than assuming we are there to build advanced edifices over a solid foundation of curiosity and reading skills built through our students’ early years, we should start out expecting to shore up the foundations. Like great teachers have long been doing, we must make the values of learning more explicit: design our teaching to focus on the themes of crafting good questions, reading actively, caring about more than what is directly marketable, cultivating practices of truth-seeking in a community, and exercising good conversational skills. It’s a task — like that of an anthropologist, perhaps — of thinking, “What unwritten values and skills did my bookish training use and assume? How can I name them? How can I embrace new ones as well?”
  4. The pedagogical challenge of stripping down assumptions compels us to think more clearly about the role of literacy in human history. What kind of people does it make us, and why do we need it? We know that the first advent of writing in any society enables new social forms, so it is only natural to see changes in the function of reading and writing as a sign of civilization-level change as well. But then again, we will have to admit that, even amid civilization, most humans in history have been illiterate. To the extent that we break from our highly literate forebears, therefore, we are not out of fellowship with the entire human past, or even the Christian past. The culture from which we are departing is epitomized by the exceptionally literate 19th century in America. This — as Neil Postman details in Amusing Ourselves to Death — was an environment in which many ordinary people could handle long and complex spoken arguments, like the all-day Lincoln-Douglas debates, because they were so accustomed to following them on the page. This culture of advanced literacy goes back to the early modern literary tradition in England, which owes in part to the serendipitous coming together of Protestant theology with the arrival of the printing press. The idea that everyone could and should read, and might have texts available to read, is a modern (albeit early modern) idea! This realization should give us a bit more humility, not to mention a calmer outlook when we face change.

But this essay is about Christian teachers, not just any teachers. Do we Christians have a special relationship to texts, such that more than nostalgia is at stake for us in the decline of a reading culture?

In the first place, God created the world by speaking, not by writing. And Jesus is the incarnate — not written — Word of God. In the Christian story, then, voice and body are more foundational than texts, as we should intuit from our central, weekly experience of gathering as a body to hear God’s word spoken and to receive Christ’s body and blood. This centrality of encountering, hearing, receiving, being, and doing reflects how most Christians over time have worshiped and been discipled, hearing and singing the Scriptures more than poring over a page. Many have lived and died in the imitation of Christ though they had never read a word of text.

On the other hand, God’s story came through the Jewish people, who by the first century were a highly literate community that studied, copied, recited, heard, discussed, debated, and practiced the written Torah — itself given by God. Jesus’ Jewish followers, then, were compelled to write down the new revelation of Jesus, to preserve and circulate the Apostles’ written teachings to the churches, and to receive these texts as holy like the Jewish Scriptures.

When Christianity spread to the Gentiles, the most learned among them helped articulate Christian truth, and new texts — the creeds — have guided Christians’ reading of Scripture ever since. When Roman civilization crumbled, it was Christian monks (along with later Islamic scribes) who faithfully preserved not only the Christian Scriptures but also a host of other great texts, serving as a repository of the culture of reading.

Lutheran teachings, appearing just after the printing press allowed texts to be widely distributed, encouraged ordinary people to read — the Bible, but other things as well. Later, the Protestant missionary movement, which gained momentum through the 19th century, made Bible translation a focus of its work. To this day, when a new language community receives the Bible, it is likely to be the first time that language has been written.

Christian teachers today should remember both sides of this. A Christian life need not be tied to high levels of literacy, so if we are teaching Christianity we must teach prayer, holy living, and the Church’s worship along with the Bible and other books. Yet Christianity does foster a special relationship to reading and writing. This is not only because of the Bible and our thoughtful responses to it, but also because of our close ties to Christians of other times and places. It is a genuinely Christian instinct to advocate for the continued, widespread, and careful use of reading and writing.

We should accept the literary culture’s loss of status as perhaps spiritually good for us — a chastening, a separating away of our chaff from our wheat, and a disciplinary pruning. It should make us humble and realistic about the gifts we offer. But let us keep reading, pondering, discussing, and teaching texts. When we do, we find it easier to understand how invisible things are still powerful and real. Everything can depend on what you cannot see.

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