Posted in Subjects

First Post-Christian, Now Post-Literate


It is an old and oft-told tale how, since the 1970s, the typical reading requirement in humanities courses has dropped.  When I first began teaching as a fellow in UCLA’s English Department in the mid-1980s, the ten-week Survey of World Literature had a ten-item bibliography, some of the items being substantial.  The undergraduates who populate my fourteen- or fifteen-week semesters can handle, at most, six items although I frequently reduce the count to five.  I also make cuts, so that students read, for example, Books I through XII of Homer’s Odyssey, or Books I through VI of Vergil’s Aeneid, and I lecture about the remainder.

Increasingly students tell me that they “can’t understand” the reading.  If they referred to Plato’s Symposium, the confession would be easy to interpret.  Abstract argument, syllogisms, and the refutation of syllogisms pose difficulties for inexperienced readers.  However, the texts that students tell me they “can’t understand” are The Odyssey or a novel by Hawthorne or Melville or a short story by Ray Bradbury.  In the case of The Odyssey, I assign Palmer’s WWI-era prose translation, so as not to traumatize the readership by confronting it with narrative in verse.  Students are telling me that they can’t understand stories, where one thing happens which leads to another and so forth.  Students give voice to a different, a radical species of incomprehension that bodes ill for the culture, the society, and the polity that they will constitute.  Their bafflement harbingers the age of post-literacy.

Post-literacy is both a symptom of the general breakdown of North American society and a cause of many other aspects of that disaster.  It combines insidiously, for example, with the trends of narcissism and group-identity that have so distorted our “liberal” politics; it helps make people vulnerable to propaganda and demagoguery; and it stultifies the cultural scene by deleting the ability to think.  Indeed, post-literacy has an ideological expression under such terms as “critical thinking,” which is a euphemism designed to equalize groupthink with actual ratiocination and judgment.  “Offense” and “discomfort” are likewise ideological constructions rooted in the post-literate “shame culture.”

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3 thoughts on “First Post-Christian, Now Post-Literate

  1. Sorry, this is unrelated to your post but I don’t know how else to ask. Are you still using the RC? If you have time, could you do an update post on how is it going for you? Have you changed how you implement it over the years or have you kept it pretty much the same all through?

    1. Yes, I am still using the RC. I am working on a post about the RC and reading that will be up soon, Lord willing. In short, I keep pretty much exactly to the RC math and science program (but we use Life of Fred instead of Saxon), we do follow the RC reading list but feel free to tailor it at will, and writing is a bit trickier and I hope to post soon on that also. Both my older children are weak in writing and so I have found that I need to supplement a lot with them and my only other one doing writing ATM is 6 years old. Now that you’ve asked this, though, I feel the need to go write those posts so I’ll get on that!

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