The Three Kinds of Illiteracy

Education at all levels in the United States has reached the crisis stage. Of course, the situation didn’t arise yesterday; it has developed over a period of decades. Nor is the crisis news to people who have been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country.

This crisis of education is manifested in three levels of illiteracy: functional illiteracy, cultural illiteracy, and moral illiteracy. Typically, to say that a person is illiterate means that the person cannot read or write. But the word does have other senses. It is sometimes used of someone who is ignorant of the fundamentals of a particular art or area of knowledge. It is this broader meaning that is in view when, for example, we say that a person is musically illiterate. The word can also be used to describe a person who falls short of some expected standard of competence regarding some skill or body of information. In this last sense, a person who falls short of our commonly expected standard of competence in mathematics can be described as illiterate, even if he or she is quite competent in language skills.

Functional Illiteracy

The United States Department of Education estimates that functional illiteracy, incompetence in such basic functions as reading, writing, and mathematics, plagues 24 million Americans. Thirteen percent of American seventeen-year-olds are illiterate, according to a recent issue of Time; the estimate for minority youth is an astonishing forty percent. 1 Every year, at least a million of these functional illiterates graduate from America’s high schools, the proud owners of meaningless diplomas.

Writing in the monthly Commentary, Chester E. Finn, Jr., a professor at Vanderbilt University, cites the dismal findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “Just five percent of seventeen-year-old high school students can read well enough to understand and use information found in technical materials, literary essays, and historical documents.” 2 Imagine then how hopeless it is to get the other 95 percent to read Plato or Dante — or the Bible. “Barely six percent of them,” Finn continues, “can solve multi-step math problems and use basic algebra.” 3 We’re not talking difficult math here but rather something as elementary as calculating simple interest on a loan.

Illiteracy this extensive is virtually unprecedented in America’s history. Eighty years ago, in 1910, only 2.2 percent of American children between the ages of ten and fourteen could neither read nor write. It is important to remember that the illiteracy of 1910 reflected for the most part children who never had the advantage of schooling. The illiterates of today, however, are not people who never went to school; they are, for the most part, individuals who have spent eight to twelve years in public schools.

Clearly incompetence of this magnitude is not the result of accident. A large part of the blame rests with the educational establishment itself, the very people and institutions entrusted with the task of educating America’s children.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that many of our public school teachers are themselves woefully under-educated. In 1983, for example, school teachers in Houston, Texas were required to take a competency test. More than 60 percent of the teachers failed the reading part of the test. Forty-six percent failed the math section while 26 percent could not pass the writing exam. As if this weren’t bad enough, 763 of the more than 3,000 teachers taking the test cheated.

The major reason for this widespread incompetence is the departments and colleges of education that have been given the power to determine what future teachers will be taught. The professional educationists who staff these institutions have persuaded their states to dictate that no one can become a public school teacher in that state without taking an inordinate number of courses in professional education. This enormous overemphasis on such courses might not be so bad, except that most education students take the classes in place of content courses. While they may learn how to teach (a debatable claim), they end up having little or nothing to teach.

Cultural Illiteracy

Even when the students in our public schools and colleges manage to attain a degree of functional literacy, they often suffer from a different problem — cultural illiteracy. According to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, “To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” 4 As William J. Bennett explains, being culturally literate is a matter of building up a body of knowledge enabling us to make sense of the facts, names, and allusions cited by an author….For example, someone who is unsure who Grant and Lee were may have a hard time understanding a paragraph about the Civil War, no matter how well he reads. 5

Cultural illiteracy is the burden of a recent book titled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The book, co-authored by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., reports what has been learned from the first nation-wide academic assessment of American seventeen-year-olds. The national average of right answers for the history questions was 54.5 percent; the average for the literature questions was even lower, 51.8 percent. The authors point out that if we approach these percentages from the commonly accepted view that 60 percent is the line between passing and failing, American students are in deep trouble.

A few examples from the Ravitch and Finn book may help underscore how bad things really are. Take the matter of history, for example. An astonishing 31.9 percent of seventeen-year-olds do not know that Columbus discovered the New World before 1750. Almost 75 percent could not place Lincoln’s presidency within the correct twenty-year span, and 43 percent did not know that World War I occurred during the first half of the twentieth century.

Things didn’t get any better when the students surveyed in the Ravitch-Finn book were tested about geography. Almost one-third of them could not locate France on a map of Europe, while less than half could locate the state of New York on a map of the United States.

The test also examined seventeen-year-olds’ familiarity with important literature. The results were equally depressing. Almost 35 percent did not know that “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” are words from the Declaration of Independence, and more than 40 percent did not know that Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities described events occurring during the French Revolution. I suppose there is something fitting and prophetic about the fact that the last item on the literature test indicates that almost 87 percent of American seventeen-year-olds are ignorant of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

These are not difficult or trivial matters of information. This abysmal ignorance exists among American youth who have had eleven years of public school education, who are one year away from getting a high school diploma, and who soon will be college students. Just for the record, I ought to state that I asked several college-level classes I teach the same questions and found almost the same degree of ignorance.

Has anything been done to identify the causes of this cultural illiteracy? Hirsch knows where much of the blame rests. He writes,

The theories that have dominated American education for the past fifty years stem ultimately from Jean Jacques Rousseau, who…thought that a child’s intellectual and social skills would develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education. His content-neutral conception of educational development has long been triumphant in American schools of education and has long dominated the “developmental,” content-neutral curriculum of our elementary schools. 6

Ravitch and Finn agree with Hirsch that the thing most responsible for the widespread cultural illiteracy in America is an approach to education that eliminates culture from the curriculum and replaces it with an emphasis on learning skills. “There is a tendency,” they write, “in the education profession to believe that what children learn is unimportant compared to how they learn; to believe that skills can be learned without regard to content; to believe that content is in fact irrelevant so long as the proper skills are developed and exercised.” 7 While the acquisition of skills has a place in our schools, it is only part of the total educational process.

While the older traditional approach to education had its faults, it contained something that is missing from the new developmental approach. From the old approach, as Ravitch and Finn say, one could learn “who we were as a people, what battles we had fought, what self-knowledge we had gained.” In short, one acquired “a point of view that could be disputed, attacked, or controverted. What took its place was not a reformulated and modernized literary tradition that embraced the rich variety of our culture, revealing to us how we had changed during a critical period of our history. The old tradition was dead, but in its stead there was merely cafeteria-style literature, including the written equivalent of junk food.” 8

Moral Illiteracy

While it is difficult for some people to believe that anyone involved in education would intentionally act in ways that would induce functional illiteracy, it is hard to overlook the educational philosophy that is responsible for cultural illiteracy. But no informed American can possibly doubt that there has been an all-out campaign to cut moral and religious values from our schools. Many educators will deny culpability with regard to functional illiteracy; they will claim innocence with regard to cultural illiteracy; but their contribution to their students’ moral illiteracy is something many of them actually claim with pride.

The bias against religious and moral values has left us with a generation of moral illiterates. John Silber, president of Boston University, has taken note of this illiteracy in his powerful book, Straight Shooting:

In generations past, parents were more diligent in passing on their principles and values to their children and were assisted by churches and schools which emphasized religious and moral education. In recent years, in contrast, our society has become increasingly secular and the curriculum of the public schools has been denuded of almost all ethical content. As a result universities must confront a student body ignorant of the evidence and arguments that underlie and support many of our traditional moral principles and practices. 9

This loss of moral order is linked inseparably to the wrecking of our intellectual tradition. According to Jewish scholar Will Herberg: “We are surrounded on all sides by the wreckage of our great intellectual tradition. In this kind of spiritual chaos, neither freedom nor order is possible. Instead of freedom, we have the all-engulfing whirl of pleasure and power; instead of order, we have the jungle wilderness of normlessness and self-indulgence.” 10

The recovery of the belief that there does exist a transcendent, universal moral order is therefore a necessary condition of America’s being delivered from its present educational crisis. Important thinkers throughout history have contended that there is a higher order of permanent things, that human happiness is dependent on living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that peace and order within human society requires similar conduct. The most important task of education, then, is to continually remind students of the importance of this transcendent order and of its content.

Russell Kirk observes that even some college students sense that this important element is missing from their education. “Not a few undergraduates,” he writes, “complain that their college offers them no first principles of morality, no ethical direction, no aspiration toward enduring truth.” 11

Like any important human activity, however, education has an inescapable religious component. Whatever we may think of other things he said, Paul Tillich was right when he defined religion as a matter of “ultimate concern.” Obviously religion is more than this, but it cannot be less. Every person has something that concerns her ultimately, and, whatever it is, that object of ultimate concern is that person’s God.

It is absurd, then, to think that the choice in public education is between the sacred and the secular. Whatever choice the State makes will only establish one person’s set of ultimate concerns at the expense of others. An education that pretends to be religiously neutral is a fraud.

One of the more disturbing ways in which one group’s set of ultimate concerns has asserted itself in public education is the misleadingly named “values-clarification” movement. Perhaps the most basic assumption of the values-clarification movement is that no one, a teacher or a parent, should think she has the right set of values to pass on to children.

As Kenneth Gangel, a professor of Christian education at Dallas Theological Seminary, explains:

Values clarification in secular education centers on inviting impressionable children and young people to make a choice among options without any consideration of absolute truth and absolute values. Is lying acceptable? Is stealing permissible? Should premarital sex be approved? Well, “it depends.” Situations differ. If young people have “clarified” their own value systems and have chosen to do or not to do these things, education has been achieved. 12

In one of the more helpful articles written about the movement, philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers explains that the leaders of the movement are convinced “that traditional middle-class morality is at best useless and at worst pernicious, and they have confidence in the new morality that is to replace the old and in the novel techniques to be applied to this end.” 13

Sommers often sounds as though she can hardly believe what she is reporting. As a university philosophy teacher who specializes in ethics, she advises that “Young people today, many of whom are in a complete moral stupor, need to be shown that there is an important distinction between moral and nonmoral decisions. Values clarification blurs the distinction.” 14

Gangel warns that this movement may be the most serious factor in America’s educational crisis. He writes, “Perhaps the number one problem in public education is the attempt to educate students without a moral pint of reference. With a floating target of truth and the desertion of absolutes, the entire system has abandoned its base.” 15

This elimination of values in education has resulted from several factors. One has been the apathy, indifference, and inaction of people who should have been on guard. This includes the majority of conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews who failed to say or do anything. Like the people in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, they slept while the enemy came out and sowed tares in their field.

But the plague of moral illiteracy is also due to the greater commitment, dedication, and cleverness of the people who gained control of public education. It was their zealous dedication and specious arguments that won over enough politicians and judges to seal their victory. That victory has been a defeat for education in this nation and an irreparable loss for the millions of young people who had the misfortune of going to schools controlled by their philosophy.

The desertion of absolutes that Ken Gangel warned against above has escalated far beyond the mere teaching of values-clarification, however. We can see moral deterioration all through society as a result of such relativistic nonsense. But others have eloquently warned of the consequence of such moral decay.

We find a most creative expression of such concern in the writing of the nineteenth-century poet, essayist, and thinker, Matthew Arnold. Arnold saw the need for reform in education and the danger of losing moral values in the educational process not long after it began to be popular to promote relativism in the schools of his day.

Arnold saw the Bible as a great work of literature and a means of advancing culture, though he did not hold to personal faith in Christ. But he recognized the importance of the Christian faith as a guide for society and saw the waning of faith as a loss for society. He believed that culture and education would have to fill the void left by the retreat of Biblical faith as the integrating force in society.

In the poem “Dover Beach,” Arnold presents the reader with a couple in a room on the cliffs of Dover. The night scene is viewed through the window of the couple’s room, and the feeling is one of quietness and near solitude. The man calls the woman to the window and, as they listen to the sounds of the sea, the tranquil mood gives way to feelings of apprehension and melancholy. The Christian faith, like the ocean, is waning, and the world has become dreary and naked. Secular humanity is exposed and alone; “free” but irrevocably lonely.

Finally the man calls his lover to be true. Nothing in the world is certain now that the Christian faith is in retreat. Confusion creeps in; war and conflict spread. All that remains is love and personal relationships.

Arnold believed that culture could take the place of Christian faith as the basis for society. Yet, as his famous poem plainly shows, the loss of Christian faith in the West left the world a more fearful, lonely, and confusing place. Culture and education are not adequate grist for the mill of society, and Arnold’s poetry clearly reveals the loss his heart feels at the inadequate solution his secular solution has suggested.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! You hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was one, too, at the full, and round the earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Matthew Arnold recognized the incredible loss that the secularization of our educational system creates. The loss of Christian values has marched on, though, despite Arnold’s poetic harbinger. The restoration of functional, cultural, and moral literacy requires that we identify and expose the ideas, ideologies, people, and movements who, to use Russell Kirk’s apt phrase, have served as our generation’s “enemies of permanent things,” those values that have been replaced with relativistic nonsense, irrational ideas, and moral bankruptcy that sent Arnold into eternal sadness. We must find ways to loosen their destructive control over the education of future generations of young people. And we must then act in cooperation with others in our society who want to see an end to the crisis of American education.


  1. See Time, 14 August 1989.
  2. Finn, Chester, “A Nation Still At Risk,” Commentary, number 87 (May 1989), p. 18.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hirsch, E.D., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. xiii.
  5. Bennett, William, “Moral Literacy and the Formation of Character,” Faculty Dialogue, Number Eight (Spring/Summer 1987), p. 24.
  6. Hirsch, Literacy, pp. xiv-xv.
  7. Ravitch, Diane and Finn, Chester, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 17.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Silber, John, Straight Shooting (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), p. xiv.
  10. Herberg, Will, “Modern Man in a Metaphysical Wasteland,” The Intercollegiate Review, number 5 (Winter 1968–69), p.79.
  11. Kirk, Russell, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend, Ind: Gateway, 1978), p. 192.
  12. Gangel, Kenneth, Schooling Choices, H. Wayne House, ed. (Portland: Multnomah, 1988), pp. 126–127.
  13. Hoff Sommers, Christina, “Ethics Without Virtue: Moral Education in America,” American Scholar (Summer 1984), p. 381.
  14. Ibid., p. 383.
  15. Gangel, Schooling, p. 127.

Copyright © 1990. This essay originally appeared in Antithesis, Vol. 1, No. 5, September/October 1990. Reproduction rights granted by the author.