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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
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
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.
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.
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.
Conundrum in Photos
A shot of
El Capitán taken in the first half of the twentieth century reminds us of
pre-industrial nature. Sacred to
aboriginal peoples 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
things topple. Human happiness
must rest somewhere in the middle, must it not?
The 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 lads like these
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 ruined abbey in Wexford, Ireland, from being converted into a
parking lot near the city center? (Answer::
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
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
a dozen 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
Alma-Tadema, A Greek Woman.
Image courtesy of The Art Renewal Center at www.artrenewal.org.
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.
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.
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