The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
Reason Submissive to Natural Limit, Not Political Trend ~ Study Serving the Human Spirit, Not Inhuman System ~ Art Attuned to Moral Calling, Not Social Posturing ~ Technology Favoring Mature Freedom, Not Mesmerized Servility
The Center for Literate Values is a non-profit, 501 (c)3 charity composed of scholars and informed citizens who share a grave concern over the collapse of Western culture. Most of our contributors hold a Ph.D. and have taught or are teaching at the college level. Many of us have done research which has carried us across the paths of legendary scholars like Albert Lord, Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, John Miles Foley, and Aleksandr Luria: that is, we are aware that pre-literate or “oral-traditional” societies, though possessed of a child-like spirituality and a laudable resignation to hard times, cannot consistently produce the marvel of a creative, determined individual. Literacy fosters such people by awakening their minds one by one, intimately and at the reader’s chosen pace. No two literate people have ever read exactly the same texts in the course of a normal lifespan, and all literate people are somewhat shaped by what they read. In contrast, pre-literate people tend to inhabit a tribal setting where all minds within earshot of the speaker absorb the same spoken information at the same time, often through the medium of unreflective gossip.
While learning of the world through the same words that teach the entire tribe may give one a wonderful sense of membership in the group, it does not prepare one to be an independent citizen in a democratic republic. Western societies (especially American society) have encouraged individuals to develop a personal conscience and to honor it even when trend or mass uprising may lead in another direction. Literacy is one key to this value system. The literate person also tends to believe in a coherent (as opposed to dualistic) metaphysical force from which the conscience’s mysterious affection for goodness emanates, even as a child’s confidence in life’s worth emanates from a loving parent. Though we at The Center would not necessarily proclaim literate education the direct cause of free enterprise and representative government (let alone of Judaeo-Christian monotheism), we see these terms as being among several in a very complex formula. Read more about our political position and our religious orientation.
The literate settlement, like Francesco Guardi’s Venice Viewed from the Bacino (below), is a place of open exchange where peculiar cultural practices are far from defunct, but where respect for the individual bridles the tribal impulse to suppress whatever strays beyond conventional boundaries. People were growing free to question discreetly (if not reject publicly) the past’s teachings in eighteenth-century Europe. Though the Counter-Reformation had somewhat chastened the inquisitive spirit of the Renaissance, culture at this historical moment, taken broadly, was having to explain itself ever more to the rational mind. In the New World, an idea was emerging that man should be free to make his own mistakes and to learn from them.
To be sure, the literate experience can also be isolating in a tragic or misanthropic manner. The individual’s newfound independence must be firmly tethered in some way to a community: a brotherhood of abstract bonds, perhaps, if not a more traditional village demarcated by sacred walls. The concept of the unique soul, properly interpreted, leads neither to the alienated pariah nor to the lawless narcissist. The importance of freedom as a value would be neutralized if the individual’s power to choose a course of action were not hemmed in by a sense of higher obligation—by a rational inference that other beings must enjoy the same freedom to find and obey their inner voice. Hence the “literate freedom” celebrated in our URL should not be confused with the radical freedom of the spoiled brat or the sociopath.
Freedom of this latter variety—freedom synonymous with selfish excess—appears to be epidemic in our ailing culture. The literate individual is vanishing. We who teach have seen with our own eyes the decline of analytical finesse and expressiveness in our composition classes over the past two or three decades. We who have children have struggled to keep their moral acumen focused upon the small, persistent inner voice of conscience rather than upon what celebrities are doing or what passes for “cool” on Facebook. All of us have converged upon a basic realization, whether persuaded of it by theory or driven to it by hard experience: i.e., that the West has entered a post-literate stage.
This does not mean that people no longer read: not exactly, or not yet. It more often means, rather, that reading has become ancillary to electronic technology, and that the quality of literature is largely dictated by that technology. “Self help” manuals and biographies about “stars” were elbowing serious writing off the charts years ago. Now even non-fiction monographs on major political issues inanely joke about “foreign-sounding” names, attempt silly puns, or wallow in salacious rumors. Fiction has become highly imitative of electronic narrative: that is, it displays shallow characters, formulaic dialogue, and plots where physical action trumps psychological depth. When our students and children do any writing of their own, they misspell (“lite” for “light”), they spout stale clichés (“you were there for me”), they support their views with peer-group prejudice rather than objectively valid reasons (“people should never judge other people’s sex lives”), and they lurch impulsively from one point to another rather than building a logical chain (“it makes me mad that some people…”). In fact, the constant intrusion of “I” and “me” into this writing is specific and convincing evidence that our children can no longer sort personal mood (or even downright moodiness) from arguments which reach out to other intelligences and lead them to common ground.
The literate individual, like French essayist Michel de Montaigne, discovers humanity by examining himself: the post-literate “tribal individual” constructs a fragile self from surrounding peers and then dehumanizes anyone who does not wear the group’s paint and feathers. continued below…
A Conundrum in Photos
A shot of El Capitan taken from the first half of the twentieth century reminfs us of pre-industrial nature. Sacred to aboriginal people who lived by the spoken rather than the written word, this peak was also a vantage from which one might have seen nuclear testing at White Sands–and even, perhaps, strange objects in the sky around Roswell.
Our concrete-and-steel fortresses insulated us for years from the “horror” of the sublime, yet at last proved unsafe when clumsy terrorists (themselves products of a culture more traditional than literate) showed us how easily high thing topple. Human happiness must rest somewhere in the middle, must it not?
Three youths in a crowded Third World city are having a good time–more so, probably, than the white-collar professional fingering the disk of “information”. Yet the latter is almost certainly marketing “good times” at some stage and level, and lower-tier consumers like these three lads will buy some of the cheaper playthings after slaving behind a mop or steering wheel all week. What happens anywhere along this vicious cycle of frivolous novelty and mass consumption to preserve humane cultural tradition? Did the rabble-rousing Marxist or the neo-conservative globalist, either one, step up to keep St. Selskar’s abbey in Wexford, Ireland, from being converted into a parking lot near the city center? (Answer: no.)
The great scholars mentioned above (Havelock, Ong, et al.) observed denizens of oral-traditional cultures displaying habits of thought which we will recognize as very similar to those of our wired youngsters. Whether in Homeric Greece or on the Serengeti, tribesmen tell stories where characters act rather than reflect–and they all tell the same stories, speak the same slang, and orient their behavior to the group’s special proverbs and prejudices. They do not think for themselves, as we would say. Now, responsibility to the group isn’t a bad thing: but members of oral-traditional cultures do not acknowledge an abstract debt to the tribe (let alone a mystical allegiance to humanity) so much as they do what the neighbors are doing. Their obedience is not guided by principle, but conditioned by habit. In this regard, they are already somewhat hampered in moral endeavor: that is, they do not freely choose their acts but merely conform to an ageless paradigm. The customary may include stoning hapless wanderers beyond the village precincts as well as showing lavish hospitality to visitors who enter by the gate.
Literacy, by giving us moral freedom, has made us both better and worse. It has made us capable of being good or bad. When we learned to write as a civilization (at least in the West, where alphabetic spelling put literate skills within everyone’s grasp), we became much more reflective and creative. Our science has allowed us to save countless lives and to rid our minds of brutal superstitions—but it has also given us the arrogance of false gods who think they can overhaul the universe. Our technology has liberated us from crushing drudgery that once stifled mind and soul—but it has also lately made us flabby-willed decadents who demand a “pushable” button for every smallest chore. Our free endeavor in the marketplace allowed us to prosper materially while disseminating useful items far and wide—but it has also very lately created economic juggernauts which grind small entrepreneurs beneath them and hold the political class at their beck and call. In various ways, the virtues of high literacy have been neutralized by the vices of late-literacy. The scientist cannot re-assemble experience on a human level, the technologist has thought up ways to relieve people of thought, the capitalist has replaced excellence of production with subtlety of seduction, and so on, and so on.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Greek Woman. Image courtesy of The Art Renewal Center at artrenewal.org. The academy would have you believe that the West has ruthlessly oppressed women; but, in fact, writing has percolated to women and assisted in their elevation far more in Western culture than elsewhere.
Yet we at The Center for Literate Values believe that humanity’s solemn obligation is to pursue this ambiguous progress. A generation of very good and very bad people is significantly closer to achieving the metaphysical ends of human life than a generation of lukewarm, protected, underdeveloped, “child-like” people. Literacy is confessional, from a spiritual standpoint. The person who does not know his own heart may be less guilty for the wrong he does—but our duty to a transcending goodness begins in studying our motives minutely, honestly, and humbly. As we lose writing, we lose the very ability to confess, to know who we are and what we do.
Besides, as our children’s minds are trained by pulsing screens, they are really not veering back into oral tradition at all (pace Marshall McLuhan). The traditional tribesman is firmly oriented to a body of myth, lore, ritual, and proverb, much of which has a moral component. Our children, in contrast, have no orientation to anything but the latest fads, which are becoming outdated at exponentially increasing rates. Their devotion is to change. They hunger insatiably for something new. That hunger drives our economy today, and may soon drive us along with our economy into a cultural meltdown. Yet politicians and professional educators continue to place more screens in the classroom and insist upon more digitalization of the marketplace. None of them seems willing to engage the career risks involved in telling us to our face that we have a cancer in need of aggressive and immediate treatment.
Even natural beauty profits from cultivated perception–the right position, the right framing, the right moment. Yet paradoxically, the human mind at its most advanced can introduce brutality by serving mere speed and ease after higher purposes have vanished. Are we reaching for knowledge today, or engineering self-indulgent fantasies?
If you are reading these words, you almost certainly have Internet access. It is not our policy, obviously, to disdain the Net’s worldwide forum. On the contrary, an organization of our limited resources would have no hope of reaching a large audience without the Net. Are we cutting a deal with the devil? It need not be so: the best movies and TV shows were once based on good books or created by very literate writers. Just as writing supported oral tradition for a millennium in northwest Europe (the Middle Ages), so electronic media, used correctly, can nurture such literate values as fine analysis, conscientious choice, objective judgment, and creative reflection. At present, our primary endeavor is to bring to the world a quarterly, Praesidium: A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis. We believe that you will find the essays, stories, and poetry contained herein to be of a profound and readable caliber. We particularly invite home-educators to exploit these resources.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Discourse. Image courtesy of The Art Renewal Center at artrenewal.org.
John R. Harris, Ph.D. President ( University of Texas at Tyler)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. Secretary (State University of New York–Oswego)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D. (York College-City University of New York)
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
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