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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: literacy (page 1 of 1)

beyond belief

Last month I published a piece over at the Hog Blog on biblical and theological illiteracy among scholars — basically a summary of some recent work by Tim Larsen. I thought I had noted a few distressing examples there … but wow, did I just have a you-ain’t-seen-nuthin’-yet moment. 

This review in the WSJ of a new book on the hymn “Amazing Grace” set my spidey-sense a-tingling — or rather, one passage from it did. I’ve been on the wrong end of reviewers’ careless dispensing of misinformation, so when I read this: 

Mr. Walvin is compelling in his description of the deep presence of “Amazing Grace” in Anglophone, especially American, culture. He is less persuasive in some of his theological observations: I find it vanishingly unlikely that the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody “portrayed Christ himself as a sinner . . . with whom armies of ordinary people could identify.” The 18th-century Church of England did not consist of a “Latin-based priesthood” conducting “impenetrable Latin-based worship” — that had been decisively seen off 200 years earlier. 

— I thought, That can’t be right. The author, James Walvin — a pretty eminent historian (primarily of The Atlantic slave trade) from the University of York — simply can’t have said those things. But lo and behold, here he is describing the D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey revival meetings in England: 

Their down-to-earth style filled the largest of city venues wherever they appeared. They held 285 such meetings in London alone. Theirs was a style which, inevitably, was heartily disliked by the more solemn corners of British worship. When Ira Sankey performed in the parish church in the small Derbyshire town of Chapel-en-le-Frith, one parishioner was so outraged that he thought the local bishop “will have something to say” to the curate who had invited him.

Throughout, Moody portrayed Christ himself as a sinner, a person with whom armies of ordinary people could identify. If Christ could be saved, so too could the humble and ordinary people in the audience. Salvation was there for all. This simple, seductive point, a potent message for the poor in the late nineteenth century, was exactly what John Newton himself had pressed home, in his letters and hymns a century before. Salvation was available to all who repented. 

And about Latin in the Church of England? Yep:  

Throughout his teenage years at sea, John Newton had been an avid reader, buying books wherever he landed and struggling with the religious principles imparted by his devout mother. Elizabeth Newton had instilled in her son a highly disciplined love of reading — and worship. She read Bible stories to him, teaching him to respond to the catechisms and to memorize hymns and psalms, especially those written for children. Elizabeth loved the hymns of Isaac Watts and her son inevitably followed. They were hymns noted for their simplicity, using ordinary, comprehensible language and were quite unlike the impenetrable Latin-based worship of the Church of England at that time. Watts’s hymns were an aspect of the ongoing Reformation that wrenched worship free from an exclusive, Latin-based priesthood and relocated it among ordinary people, simply by using the common vernacular. 

A few comments, typed with quivering hands: 

  1. The reviewer, Priscilla M. Jensen, calls these “theological observations,” but they are no such thing: they are historical statements that are catastrophically, outrageously wrong — the equivalent of saying that Benjamin Franklin was a Buddhist and that Frederick Douglass was a native speaker of French. They are so wrong, and wrong about facts so elementary, that I couldn’t possibly trust one word of Walvin’s book. Nor should any of you. 
  2. If Walvin thinks that “Christ could be saved,” by whom might that be accomplished? If Jesus Christ is one of the saved, who is the Savior? Perhaps Walvin could reflect on that name “Christ” — does he think that it’s Jesus’s surname, and that especially respectful people would refer to him as Mr. Christ? 
  3. If “throughout” his evangelistic sermons D. L. Moody called Mr. Christ a sinner, I would love to see just one example of it. But there isn’t one. It is not, as Jensen said, “vanishingly unlikely,” it is impossible. Moody’s entire theology — like that of every other orthodox Christian — was completely governed by his belief that, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” 
  4. James Walvin appears to be a Briton, in any case has certainly lived a number of years in Great Britain, and moreover has received a doctorate in history. How can he not know that the English prayer book was composed, issued, and mandated — with the Latin Mass correspondingly forbidden — nearly two hundred years before John Newton’s birth? 
  5. As Tim Larsen noted in the essay that got me onto this subject, “It takes a village” to disseminate ignorance this gross: James Walvin wrote the sentences I have quoted, but no peer reviewer noticed anything wrong, no editor, no copy editor — not one person in the whole complex process at the University of California Press knew enough even to question the claim that an evangelical preacher regularly proclaimed that Jesus Christ is a sinner, or that the average Church of England parish in the eighteenth century featured priests mumbling prayers in Latin. Never at any point was it thought necessary to have a manuscript on an English Christian hymn looked at by someone with an elementary knowledge of English Christianity. 
  6. Finally: Why — why, oh why, oh why — do people (scholars especially!) insist on writing books on subjects that they cannot be bothered to learn the basic facts about? Write on something you’re sufficiently interested in to learn about, for heaven’s sake! 

P.S. People often ask, “Don’t these presses have fact-checkers?” No. No, they don’t. Many magazines have fact-checkers — the ones at Harper’s, for instance, work me like a dog to justify my every claim — but publishing companies, even academic presses, typically don’t. They hope that their copy-editors — almost always freelancers — will catch howlers, but that’s about it. Certain kinds of books, biographies for instance, will get read by lawyers, but that’s not about avoiding statements that are wrong, that’s about avoiding statements that are actionable. (When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis a lawyer-reader flagged a comment I made about Charles Williams’s habit of asking pretty young women to sit on his lap so that his eros could be transformed miraculously into agape — Might Williams take exception to this statement, I was asked. I replied that, since he died in 1945, I didn’t think it likely.) 

Nick Carr:

Well-turned sentences had a decent run, but after TikTok they’ve become depreciating assets. Traditional word-based culture — and, sure, I’ll stick Twitter into that category — is beginning to look like a feeding ground for vultures. Tell Colleen Hoover to turn out the lights when she leaves. 

Part of Nick’s post is about the proposed purchase of Simon & Schuster by one of the nastiest corporations in the world, KKR. Cory Doctorow explains (a) just how vampiric KKR is and (b) why the purchase might not be approved by the FTC. 

the history of literacy

Mary Harrington:

We can also kiss goodbye to the “marketplace of ideas”. This might have seemed plausible when everyone aspired to long-form, deliberative, rationalism and a broadly shared moral framework. When these are things of the past, we all absorb disaggregated, de-contextualised snippets of information at speed, our reading material rewards us for not concentrating long enough to think something through, and we can see everyone else thinking in real time on our screens? 

Ah yes, I remember it well: that halcyon era when everyone sat around reading Hobbes’s Leviathan and earnestly buttonholing passersby in impassioned search for a shared moral framework.

Harrington relies heavily on a melancholy essay by Adam Garfinkle on the subject of Literacy Lost, and for people like Harrington and Garfinkle I have some questions: 

Do you know anything — anything at all — about the history of literacy? About what people in any society, any society in the whole world, at any point in history, could read and did read? For instance: what percentage of people in France in 1900, or England in 1850, or China in 1800, or the U.S.A. in 1950, had ever in their lives read a single book? If they had read books, how intellectually demanding and substantive were those books? If they were assigned those books in school, did they actually do the reading? How were the books taught to them? That is, were the best qualities of those books explored in ways that were comprehensible and meaningful to the students? How common, or how rare, was the education in “deep reading” that you commend? 

I ask because if you don’t have this information, then you have no business making comparative judgments between our own moment and any moment in the past. And this information is hard to find. What we do know mainly makes us want to know more. You may wish that more people read, and read good books — I certainly do — but without actual data you can’t compare us to our ancestors. 

I will just say this: I think the hidden assumption in essays like Harrington’s and Garfinkle’s is that if people weren’t on social media and staring at their iPhones they’d be reading books instead. And I don’t believe for one second that that’s a safe assumption. 

deep literacy?

The problem here is the lack of evidence that “deep literacy” really is in decline. Decline from what height? Starting when? Also:

The rise of deep literacy in enough people in early modernity — mightily aided, of course, by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type — was a precondition of Protestantism’s firm establishment and rapid growth, and its establishment was in turn a major accelerator of deep literacy in the societies in which it became the principal faith community, in large part because Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children. The Reformation found a very powerful engine in the establishment of these schools: Wherever Protestant beliefs spread, state-mandated education soon followed, each reinforcing the other.

“Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children” — all of them? Everywhere? I don’t think so. When and where did this happen? Perhaps Maryanne Wolf provides evidence for these claims in her book, but if so citations of some kind would have been useful. And in any case Wolf is not a historian. Here’s a widely-cited article from 1984 that asks about the relationship between literacy and the Reformation in Germany. The authors conclude that the early Lutherans weren’t especially interested in promoting general literacy — they devoted themselves to promoting catechesis in schools, and this was done orally — and relatively little progress was made in promoting general literacy until the Pietists in the eighteenth century became influential. And even then the achievements were modest:

Besides reorganizing and revitalizing school systems still suffering from the effects of the Thirty Years War, the eighteenth-century ordinances set targets gradually achieved over time. Indicative of the type of incremental progress that was made are some statistics from East Prussia, one of the poorest rural areas in Germany. The percentage of peasants who could sign their names rose from 10 per cent in 1750, to 25 per cent in 1765, to 40 per cent in 1800. Another sign of increasing literacy was the exponential growth in the book trade in the last half of the eighteenth century as the number of titles for sale at the Leipzig book market, the largest in Germany, increased by over 50 per cent between 1740 and 1770 and more than doubled between 1770 and 1800. To be sure, the increase in literacy and reading in the late eighteenth century was still spotty and varied widely in depth and intensity from place to place. Best estimates of school attendance in the second half of the eighteenth century range from one-third to one-half of German school-age children.

How much deep literacy could there be in an environment in which basic literacy was by no means complete — in some areas not even widespread? That’s just in Germany, of course; comparative study needs to be done to make a more general case.

You can’t effectively make an argument like this without being able to answer some questions:

  1. How, specifically, do we distinguish deep literacy from more basic kinds of literacy?
  2. Where and when have rates of basic literacy been highest?
  3. What data do we have, for any of those places and times, to indicate the proportion of people achieving deep literacy (measured in relation both to basically-literate persons and to the whole population)?

Just to start. And I would ask a deeper and harder-to-answer question: For the overall health of a society, is it the number of people who achieve deep literacy that matters? Or is it the social and political influence of the deeply literate?

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