The Good Letters: The Decline of Literary Education and its Consequences

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (September 2010)

In his most recent State of the Union address, our President decried the lagging state of our educational system, warning in particular of the superiority of mathematical and scientific instruction among our international competitors. In his emphasis on the importance of these two subjects, and his implicit assumption of the link between these disciplines and economic prosperity, he certainly displayed no singularity of belief. These are the convictions of the age. So when the Carnegie Corporation released a report last year entitled “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy,” a report which calls chiefly for increased government funding for instructions in math and science, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at the presentation conference, declared, “we have to bring math and science to the forefront,” as though, by asserting the primacy of these subjects, he were pronouncing the most uncontroversial truism.[i] Such calls for a renewed focus on the teaching of these two disciplines are invariably tied to similar appeals for greater competitiveness in the “global economy” or the “world marketplace,” or some such fashionable cant phrase; the website of the National Math and Science Initiative announces that the project “was formed to address one of this nation’s greatest economic and intellectual threats – the declining number of students who are prepared to take rigorous college courses in math and science and equipped for careers in those fields.”[ii] These are but a few examples, but they serve to reveal that a confidence in the economic utility of scientific and mathematical instruction, and the corollary prioritization of these subjects, are the ruling pedagogical dogmas of the age.
Because such notions are all-pervasive among our contemporaries, we fail to appreciate how radically they contrast with the educational principles of nearly all former ages, in both substance and objective. From the time of the ancient Greeks all the way up to the advent of the modern era, the distinctive talent of an educated Western person was universally regarded as literacy, and the primary, oftentimes exclusive, ends of schooling in the West were to impart an advanced fluency with language, and the arts of language. Nor was such instruction carried out with an eye towards vocational training, or towards imparting the skills necessary for the student’s eventual financial flourishing, but simply as the means for preparing young men for participation in the life of a civil society. Which is to say, that prior to the modern world, the generally accepted purpose of schooling was, to use the jargon of our own times, the formation of character, and the generally adopted means of achieving that formation was a thoroughly literary education.
Begin with the Greeks; everyone who has carefully studied that golden Athenian society which was, with the Hebrew civilization, one of the two great well-springs of our western traditions, knows that her young citizens were nourished, from a very early period, with literature. Homer, “the teacher of the Hellenes,” was familiar to the youth not merely from their formal instruction, where they would have been expected to memorize whole passages of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but from public recitations in the streets and squares of Athens performed by the rhapsodes. The heroic personae of Achilles and Hector were explicitly presented to the students as exemplars of right conduct, fit models for their emulation; thus, the indignation of Socrates, recorded in The Republic, at what he regarded as the unworthy and potentially deleterious depiction of Achilles weeping at the news of Patroclus’ death. In the amphitheater, the tragic drama, originating from the enigmatic Bacchic cults, transformed into a pedagogical and civic, as well as a religious, ritual; the young members of the democratic polis were expected to attend, and gain from their attendance the wisdom necessary to direct the affairs of the state justly. Public monies were reserved for the purpose of defraying the entrance fee of the penurious, and the penalty of death was prescribed for any man who so much as suggested that these funds be diverted to any other use, even in times of dire crisis. Even the schools of rhetoric, which certainly were vocational in their origins – their aims being to impart to their charges the ability to speak effectively in the law-courts and the assemblies – were amenable to larger ends, as for instance, among the Peripatetic schools, where the art of rhetoric was taught, in correspondence with Aristotle’s theory, as a necessary technique of good governance.
The very broad outlines of this Athenian mode of education – fundamentally literary and oriented towards the inculcation of civic virtue in the youth – remained stable throughout the Hellenistic era. Among the Romans, the importance of eloquence as a prerequisite of public service was emphasized even more, so that the first century rhetorician Quintillian could claim that the orator was “the good man speaking well.”[iii]    The Church Fathers, who inherited much of the Romans’ intellectual culture, regarded the classic authors as the spolia Aegyptiorum, and an indispensable tool of the Christian teacher; loud was the protest among the clergy when Julian the Apostate forbade Christians from teaching the pagan authors to their youth. With the emergence of the high medieval culture out of the long barbarism of the West, the Church assumed the role of schoolmaster to the minds of Europe, yet the forms of instruction which she engendered were remarkably consistent with those of the classical world. The teaching of the trivium – the literate disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – was the foundation of all formal schooling, and a thorough acquaintance with the authors of antiquity, such as Virgil and Statius, remained a key feature of every curriculum. The scientific and mathematical disciplines of the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music,- which completed the order of the seven liberal arts, were taught later, and with an eye towards the discipline they provided the mind, rather than any utilitarian purpose. Theories of scriptural exegesis attained levels of dizzying, and undoubtedly tedious, complexity, which might very well entitle the medievals to be called the most careful and sophisticated readers of all time; commentaries on canonical texts became a prominent genre. The universities, many of which began as institutions of occupational training, in medicine or in the law, soon became, at a Sorbonne or an Oxford, the stronghold of a more exalted learning, where theology held sway as the “queen of the sciences,” and students were initiated into citizenship in the Civita Dei. 
The Renaissance, which we tend to remember primarily for its sublime achievements in the plastic arts, was firstly, to its contemporaries, a revival of interest in the “good letters” of the ancient world; as the great Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller wrote, “the studia humanitatis came to stand for a clearly defined cycle of scholarly disciplines, namely grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, and the study of each of these subjects was understood to include the reading and interpretation of its standard ancient writers in Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek.”[iv] Latin eloquence was the ambition of every educated person, and the dominant concern of the schools. Manuscript hunting among the monasteries of Europe became the favorite pastime of the era, and men greeted the discovery of a long-lost text by Cicero or Plutarch with all the enthusiasm reserved among previous generations for saintly relics. The moral and political import of literary instruction was, if anything, even more explicit than it had been in earlier times, as the humanists tried to justify the legitimacy of their project to their skeptical and conservative peers; thus, the fifteenth century teacher and scholar Pier Paolo Vergerio maintained that “the fruits of literature are always great, for the whole of life and for every kind of person, but it is particularly beneficial to the studious for forming habits of virtue and strengthening the memory of times past as well as for the acquisition of learning,”[v] and his contemporary Aeneas Sylvius, the eventual Pope Pius II, held literary studies to be the key to all higher learning: “philosophy, the mother of all arts cannot be readily comprehended without literary study…Who therefore would not be willing to toil over literature when such wonderful fruit is plucked from it? When it holds the knowledge of good and evil?…Every age without letters is dark.”[vi] The great schoolmasters Vittorino da’Feltre of Mantua, and Battista Guarino of Ferrara, made the new humanistic learning of the era the basis of their curriculum, and this Renaissance form of education, with the centrality it accorded to the “good letters,” remained the paradigm of western schooling well into the nineteenth century.
This is no doubt a highly abbreviated and unqualified record of western pedagogy, but the primary place accorded throughout that history to literature and literacy is an uncontroversial fact. But with the emergence of modern science, things slowly began to change. As early as the 17th century, champions of experimental methodology were advocating a new kind of learning, one which deemphasized the imprecise and misleading arts of language – the substance of Bacon’s Idols of the Marketplace – and accentuated the scientific utility of mathematics, which, as Galileo would have it, was the language spoken by nature. But it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that real steps were taken to effect curricular changes which would place math and science on a level with, and even above, the humanistic disciplines. This had much to do with the abundance of scientific knowledge accrued over the previous two centuries, as well as the increasing popularity of such studies, but by far the most powerful force behind these changes was the rapidly advancing Industrial Revolution, and the need which it eventuated for scientifically trained engineers to continue its progress, and the corresponding economic vitality which accompanied such progress.[vii] Thus, right from the beginning, the promotion of scientific education was justified upon chiefly economic grounds.
One of the earliest attempts to defend such a mode of education was Thomas Henry Huxley’s speech at the opening of Birmingham College, when Huxley not only indicated the usefulness and applicability of scientific learning, but unabashedly shared the then quite novel opinion that “for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.” This earned the well-known reply from Matthew Arnold, that humanist studies were valuable on account of their satisfaction of our “sense of conduct” and our “sense of beauty,” a satisfaction which the sciences never could provide. Yet even Arnold recognized the need of a proper scientific training for the newly emergent business classes of England, writing elsewhere that “it is science that we have most need to borrow from the German universities.”[viii] By the beginning of the twentieth century, high level scientific instruction in England spread from the technical institutes of the provinces, to the ordinary curriculum of Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, scientists proclaimed the superiority of their favored branches of learning over the antiquated literary education of the past with ever greater brashness; the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane claimed that “science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than are the classics,”[ix] and a little later, the evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson declared all attempts to answer life’s questions prior to the publication of The Origin of Species – a category which must include all of the humanist learning of the previous two millennia- as “worthless,” adding, “we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”[x] In our own country, the launch of Sputnik in the midst of the Cold War initiated a nationwide anxiety about the adequacy of the scientific and mathematical instruction American students were receiving; Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which designated massive funds to be distributed among the public schools for the enhanced teaching of math and science, an act which became the paradigm of subsequent interventions of the federal, state, and local governments to promote the teaching of these subjects, with the an eye towards economic competitiveness.
Thus, we find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century with a near universal social consensus that the ultimate function of our educational system is to ensure the future prosperity of our nation, and that for this reason the teaching of math and science ought to take precedence in the curriculum. For the first time in the history of the western world, numeracy has been given priority over literacy in the schools. And this is an immensely important fact to recognize, because only when we are aware of this history, and our place in its trajectory, can we understand what is undoubtedly the most consequential cultural phenomenon of our time – the deliterasation of our society.
This is hardly an exaggerated label for what we are witnessing. It would be quite impossible to overstate either the scope or the intensity of the problem. The typical American student can no longer write a coherent paragraph, compose a grammatically complex sentence, evaluate an argument, articulate an idea in a complete sentence, or read a major author with comprehension; his vocabulary can be numbered in the hundreds, and his attention span can be measured in seconds. Years of relentless, incessant exposure to television, movies, video games, internet, and text messaging, combined with miserably deficient instruction in language, have rendered his brain an indolent mush, incapable of being exerted towards any literate effort. It has been accurately reported that many of our graduates cannot even read their diplomas. Beyond the schoolroom, the trend progresses apace, since illiterate students do not turn into literate citizens. The decline of reading among the public has been chronicled in various studies, most powerfully in the NEA’s report entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, released in 2004, which contained such unsettling statistics as that less than half of American adults now read literature, and the highest rates of decline in reading are taking place among the youngest age groups.[xi] Even among that increasingly smaller portion of the public still committed to reading, the forms of literature which they choose are of a dramatically inferior quality to that which occupied the public just two or three generations ago – imbecile partisan political tracts, scandal-mongering biographies, and excruciatingly dull fiction composed in the prose of a mildly talented third-grader. The classics of our western traditions are as lost to us as if they remained moldering in dusty manuscripts in the basements of the monasteries. 
Yet as remarkable as this phenomenon is, what constitutes its truly startling feature is the general insouciance displayed by our entire society towards it, evinced most perfectly by such repeated calls, as noted at the outset of this essay, for the improvement of math and science instruction, at a time when the teaching of these disciplines, whatever its condition, has degenerated into nothing like the catastrophic futility of the humanities. We long ago passed the crisis point in national literacy, yet nothing remotely approaching the nationwide concern triggered by the launch of one satellite in the fifties can be discerned. To the contrary, hardly anybody in the public sphere seems to be the least bit discomforted by what is taking place. The NEA report cited above, which then chairman Dana Gioia referred to as a record of a “national crisis,” hardly registered in the attention of the American public. Some have even tried to celebrate this enormous transformation, praising the “visual literacy” allegedly enhanced by new forms of media, or the improvement in motor skills which follows from hours of playing video games. Undoubtedly, the Cro-Magnon, who painted admirable pictures on the cave-walls of Altamira, and engaged in hunting expeditions for enormous game, were certainly possessed of fine visual literacy and motor skills, yet it is very likely that no one would like to see our culture return to its state at those times. Such blithe indifference to the perilous state of literacy is a direct consequence of the demotion granted to literacy by our schools, and the culture-wide assumption that so long as our children are being educated adequately for the workplace, we need have no concerns about their skills in the presumptively superfluous areas of literature, history, or rhetoric. Such a state of affairs would have been inconceivable in any period subsequent to the disappearance of the Huns. The truth is unmistakable; the passage into a post-literate civilization is a decline into a state of culture not displayed by western peoples since their tribal eras, and we ought at least to be clear-eyed and honest about what losses such a momentous change entails. ”Every age without letters is dark,” claimed Aeneas Sylvius, and we should not expect things to be different with us.

A person without a sufficient level of literacy is a person without substantial access to the accumulated wisdom of mankind – to “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” to use Arnold’s formulation. The contemporary American student, utterly dazed and stupefied by his technological diversions, simply lacks the skills necessary to receive the ethical, political, and theological insights preserved, like jewels in a stronghold, among the pages of the classics. He will never feel the full beauty of human forgiveness, as expressed in the gorgeous lines of Cordelia to her convalescent father. He will never understand, with “long-enduring Odysseus,” how much a true home is to be cherished. He will never be tutored by Burke in all of the deceptive fallacies wielded by modern mass society to preserve its power. He will never learn, with Kierkegaard, just how much despair and angst are necessary for the proper formation of the soul. Since he cannot know these things, he cannot act in accord with their truth; he cannot conform his life to their compelling significance. It is no grandiloquent proposition – indeed, it is hardly anything other than a truism – to say that a young person deprived of a humanist education is one who has the possibilities of his life immeasurably limited. Sir Philip Sidney, who had as much authority on this topic as any man could have, once wrote, “it is manifest that all government of action is to be gotten by knowledge, and knowledge best by gathering many knowledges, which is reading.” From this it follows that the less reading which an individual performs, the less knowledge he can gather, and the less knowledge he possesses, the more restricted must become the “government” of his actions – which is to say, the less he can be and become.
Whether or not language is the house of being, as Heidegger would have it, it is undoubtedly the house of value. There is no question with bearing upon the conduct of our lives, or the policies of our governments, which can be deliberated by any other than linguistic means. The truth or falsity of ethical or political or philosophical propositions can be weighed solely through language, and as this implement grows deformed and impotent, so must our judgments on issues of moment become ever more dubious; the falsification of our lives and our laws must follow soon thereafter. In regards to ourselves and our choices, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between our powers of language and our powers of reason. The 18th century rhetorician Hugh Blair perceived this near identity quite clearly:

When we are employed, after a proper manner, in the study of composition, we are cultivating reason itself. True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied. The study of arranging and expressing our thoughts with propriety, teaches to think, as well as speak, accurately…Every one who has the slightest acquaintance with composition knows, that when he expresses himself ill on any subject…the defects of his style can, almost on every occasion, be traced back to his indistinct conception of the subject: so close is the connection between thoughts and the words in which they are clothed.[xii]
A literary education is one which trains a student’s ability to reach sound judgments on issues pertinent to his life. Pace Huxley and the other propagandists of science, this is an ability which is indispensable to culture – which is the whole point of culture – and it is an ability which no amount of training in the sciences, or in mathematics, which is the language of science, can possibly bestow upon the student.  
These may sound like unduly large or overwrought claims to make on behalf of literary education, though in fact they come well short of capturing the whole truth of the matter. But from these desultory reflections we can immediately discern one thing: the purpose of humanist education is to cultivate young minds which are substantially free, and capable of exercising that freedom judiciously. ”We call those studies liberal,” wrote Vergerio, “which are worthy of a free man,” and such a form of education he explicitly contrasts with a vocational program: “just as profit and pleasure are laid down as ends for illiberal intellects, so virtue and glory are goals for the noble.” Scientific education has as its end the power over nature – “the effecting of all things possible,” as Bacon put it in The New Atlantis – but literary education has as its end the power over ourselves. Thus the poet Shelley could lament the modern state, in which man “having enchained the elements, remains himself a slave.” The fruits which a society reaps from scientific instruction are economic prosperity, but the fruits which a society reaps from literary education are rational political freedom; we cultivate the former, because we have the greater concern for our wealth and power, but past ages cultivated the latter because they had a greater concern for their liberties. To put the point most emphatically, we place such importance upon the teaching of math and science, and so little upon the humanities, because we would rather be rich than just. As for the preferred patronage of our governments, it is hard for the least conspiratorially minded person to avoid the conclusion that our elected officials feel no great enthusiasm for the promotion of literary learning because of a recognition that their reign depends upon large masses of docile, unquestioning citizens, exactly the sort of citizens produced by a process of formal schooling which fundamentally neglects the humanities.
Thus, as we tumble further into the post-literate era, we can expect to witness ever more hideous alterations in our society. Mass conformity must increase, as the examples of past lives, imparted by a knowledge of history, fades from men’s minds; the average life of our fellow citizens must become ever more confined, ever more directed towards trivial goals, ever more consumed with petty concerns. Magnanimity, in policy and personal choice, must evaporate, as the ideals of our ancestors fall into quiescence; vulgarity will become ubiquitous, and manifest itself in our arts, our laws, and our manners. Fraudulent movements of every stripe will proliferate, as even the most credentialed persons – for educated we can hardly call them – will lack the rational capacity to detect their fraudulence. Our politics will become a chaos, as public discourse transforms into rancorous and fruitless abuse, the arts of government grow identical with the arts of deceit, and arbitrary will increasingly usurps the place of reason. Freedom, which has no other arms than the truth, will disappear entirely.
If these sound like histrionic apprehensions, it can only be from one’s lack of attention to present-day society, since there is unmistakable evidence for each of these trends right now, in the world about us. Only to instance the plunge into political debasement, who is there that does not lament the unspeakably vile state of our political discourse, from which neither instruction, nor wise counsel, nor enlightened policy can possibly be derived? Our contemporaries no longer even feign the effort of constructing arguments to meet their interlocutors, but instead throw around fetishized words, like “diversity” or “free-market” to do the work of persuasion. Policy debates in our time resemble nothing so much as those war-dances of the Pacific Islanders, a spectacle of wild and violent gesticulations, threatening miens, and primitive half-grammatical ejaculations, with one party howling “racist” and “fascist,” the other side bellowing back “socialist” and “elitist,” the whole scene a prelude to conflict and destruction. Is there any wonder that partisan acrimony has reached such seething levels? Nor has the imbecility of our discourse failed to erode our freedoms in various ways, most monstrously in the assorted attempts of western governments to suppress the ability of their citizens to discuss the direst phenomenon of the age, the portentous spread of radicalized Islam, all in the name of combating “hate.” These are complex events, brought about by complex causes, but one must be possessed of a special kind of obtuseness to miss the consequences of our deficient modes of education in these affairs. And as the literacy of the rising generation continues to wane, we should only expect to see more, and more heinous instances, of such things.
For going on many years now, our schools have cast forth into our society whole generations of incurious, self-satisfied, intellectually stunted, and substantially illiterate persons, to comprise the whole of our body politic; to believe that such a citizenry is capable of maintaining a free or civil society is as perfect a delusion as has ever taken hold of a people. Because we have continued rich and powerful, luxuriating in every technological accoutrement which advanced industrial society can produce, we have wallowed in this delusion quite willfully. But the recent economic crisis, which was occasioned by the malfeasance of vast segments of our population, ought to have reminded us that our wealth and our power have other and deeper foundations than merely technical knowledge, that, as Socrates asserted, “virtue is not given by money, but from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private.” We cannot impart virtue to our youth without a proper form of education, and that is one which, as our predecessors understood so clearly, prioritizes literacy, and the arts of literacy, above all things. Until we return to such a form of education in our schools, we will continue on our present course of decadence, into a condition which is dark indeed.



[iii] see Chapter One, Book Twelve of his Institutio Oratoria

[iv] Kristeller, Paul Oskar Renaissance Thought and its Sources (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979) 22.

[v] In Kallendorf, Craig H. ed. Humanist Educational Treatises (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 2002) 51.

[vi] Kallendorf, 161.

[vii] See Chapter 10 in Barnard, H. C. A History of English Education from 1760 (London: University of London Press, 1961) and Chapter 1 in Sanderson, Michael The Universities and British Industry 1850-1970 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972)

[viii] Sanderson, 21.

[ix] see Daedulus, or Science and the Future at

[x] cited in Dawkins, Richard The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989) 1.


[xii] Blair, Hugh Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Carbondale, Ill., Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2005) 5-6.

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