Friday, May 29, 2009

Leigh's Thesis: Chapter 1 (1)


Literacy rates in America have declined sharply, decreasing our ability to understand Scripture.
The first book of Kings tell us that [Solomon] studied biology (both animal and plant life), wrote over a thousand songs, and collected three thousand proverbs from sources in the ancient world. Ecclesiastes indicates that he weighed and studied these proverbs and arranged them in order. That he sought ‘pleasing words’ as well as words of truth indicates his concern about the aesthetic. Foreign rulers came to him for advice, and his decision making amazed them. He invested in international commerce and spurred the economic development of his country. […] Solomon’s name has stood through three millennia for wisdom, its importance, its social application, and its divine source.(1)
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 15 percent of adults in the U.S. are proficient readers. The statistical results are captured well in To Read or Not To Read, edited by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. But from the 1600s through the early 1900s, the U.S. had literacy rates of over 90 percent. No other culture or group of people since the advent of the printing press has raised as literate a culture as the U.S. before the 1950s.

Today, policymakers distinguish between several levels of literacy. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) defines three basic categories: prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Prose literacy refers to the ability to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts like brochures, the news, books, and instructions.

In 2005, based on 2003 statistics, the NAAL estimated that 13 percent of Americans were proficient (able to use complex and challenging texts) in prose literacy. Forty-four percent were intermediate (handling moderately challenging texts), 29 percent were basic (handling simple and everyday tasks) and 14 percent were below basic (only comprehending simple and concrete texts).

Document literacy refers to the ability to comprehend non-continuous texts like job applications, payroll schedules, maps, and graphs. In document literacy, 13 percent were proficient, 53 percent were intermediate, 22 percent were basic, and 12 percent were below basic.

Quantitative literacy refers to the ability to identify and perform computations using numbers embedded in print, like balancing a checkbook, calculating tips, and using order forms. In quantitative literacy, 13 percent were proficient, 33 percent were intermediate, 33 percent were basic, and 22 percent were below basic.

I personally would be statistically labeled highly literate, and my parents assumed I was educated after sending me to school for sixteen years. But there is a big difference between “literacy” (or able to handle everyday words) and being “educated” (or able to evaluate political and economic philosophies in the context of great literature or even the voting booth).

In 1997, I couldn’t comprehend the French in Henry V, the Latin in National Review Magazine, or the large vocabulary of The Federalist Papers. Neither could I name a single constellation or an African or Australian province. I couldn’t identify the century when Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, and Charlemagne reigned nor what countries they ruled, nor explain how they were related to one another. I was highly literate, yet very uneducated.

If I am going to ensure that my children are effectively educated, I need to look at models that have been proven to work instead of repeating the ineffective methods I was taught.

The only time in recorded history that over 90 percent of a nation’s people were proficiently literate was in the U.S. from 1605 to the 1950s. All other cultures have been significantly less literate or purely oral cultures. So, I want to know what the average parent and teacher from that era did to raise the most literate nation ever, and I want to develop our family’s educational model in light of that knowledge.

(1) Arthur F. Holmes, Building the Christian Academy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 3.

Copyright © 2009 by Leigh A. Bortins. All Rights Reserved.

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