John Mark Reynolds, keynote speaker at GodBlogCon, brings to our attention a study that shows the profound lack of literacy American high school graduates possess. Apparently 50% of students who participated in the study have the skill to do basic tasks with language such as summarize the arguments in a newspaper editorial (they still make arguments in those things?).

What does this all mean? Reynolds explains:

When someone tells you that the “new media” or the Internet is changing everything, ask them if arguments that form the basis of scientific, philosophic, and theological advances have changed. They have not. It is not just that we have not yet devised a way to create pictures of these things and get rid of words. . . it is the very ability of words to describe but not be reduced to our experience as easily as an image or icon must. Our failure to give our children the gift of language dooms them to serve those who have it, I fear.

Illiterate people are doomed to be slaves with souls stamped by tyrants to follow the will of those with words.

I work with high school students and am desperately trying to equip them with the tools to express and analyze their beliefs. I love my students, but it is definitely an uphill battle – and most of them are surely above the average level of their peers.

Recently, I listened to a selection of quotations from WWII hero Winston Churchill. He related that he was a “poor” student, so they wouldn’t let him take Latin. He was forced to endure English grammar class after English grammar class and the result, Churchill states, “was that I got the structure of the English sentence into my bones.” That must be what enabled him to prove himself the best speech maker of the 20th century and become the roar of the British lion that saved the West. Funny ideas those Victorian educators had!

If we want to get Christian ideas back into the marrow of our culture, one of the best routes is to give our young people a decent education with plenty of reading and writing. See how true this is in our own Matthew Anderson’s insightful post on the state of evangelical Christian youth. Find writing curriculum that actually works here. Read the Great Books. If you are in high school or a parent of high schoolers, take Torrey Academy classes. If you are ambitious, you could even take Latin (though Churchill apparently did alright without it!).

Slavery of the mind may be worse than slavery of the body because slaves of the mind don’t know they are slaves.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. The educated always seem to find a way of explaining trivia and commonalities, but -alas!- the greatest things in life are ineffable.

    Therefore it is more probable for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the most literate ones to explain the mysteries of life.

    God has not chosen the intellectual elite, but the fishermen and the idioca. Yes, the pagans of this world love to be puffed up with compliments regarding their knowledge, but God desires primitivity.

    I tell you the truth it is better to be a lover full of devotion and understood by no one, than to have the tongue of a thousand poets and be consumed by the desire for public applause.


  2. I’m glad you’ve been well-educated enough in language to make your point.


  3. Elliot Ravenwood October 23, 2006 at 2:20 am


    Two comments. First, you write: “God desires primitivity.” I disagree. God put man in a Garden, but at the End of All Things, after the Second Coming, He will not restore us to a garden, but will establish the Kingdom of God in a _City_. God expects us to develop, not to devolve. As St. Jack once wrote, God wants us to have the faith of a child, but the mind of a man.

    Second, the way you refer to “love” makes it sound like love is in conflict with reason. Do you think this is so? If so, you’ve inherited the tradition not of the early Christians but of the Courtly Love poets of the 13th Century. They were the first to really think that loving was opposed to rationality. Their idea of love was primarily one of “eros”, or romantic passion and desire. (“A love full of devotion and understood by no one…”) But when Paul talks of love in 1 Cor 13, which you refer to, he is using “agape”, or charity, and not “eros.” Charity requires the use of reason–to love in this sense is to identify someone’s needs and decide to meet them. It’s no coincidence that we can say that “God is Love” and that God is omniscient. How could He be the one without the other?


  4. Andrew:
    Point taken … and compliment taken if there was one. Setting aside all light-heartedness, may I ask why there are many who are well-educated in language and few who are well-educated in love?

    Your familiarity with church history is probably in terms of its intellectual epocs. Check out the writings of Tertullian (who far predates the 13th century). There are also a number of mystic writers, Bernard, and aKempis. One of my personal favorites is Erasmus (see In Praise of Folly). Luther and Calvin are not far from these writers. Their devotional reflections make the abstraction of the scholastics appear surfacey and unrelated to actually living the Christian life, which they are.

    Do not forget that before Christ became one of us, he was totally omniscient. Yet he set aside this very thing to become the perfect expression of God. Just as John writes, greater love has no man than this … Christ’s greatness was his love.

    To me, there is something disobedient about asserting the inferiority of those who cannot read … how they will be your slaves one day and so on. Do you not think there will come a day where the least of people in this life will become the highest? Humble yourself, before God and He will lift you up.

    Erotic love is very different from the unconditional love of God, but these two things have more in common than the “ethical” love of phileos (sp?). Consider how Paul prizes highly the congregations who “gave not out of what they had, but out of what they did not have”.

    Have you not felt there was something a bit strange when the Bible contrasts our disobedience with God’s pursuit of us? This strangeness (or for a more reformational description, it’s ‘alienness’) is an expression of how wonderful it is.

    Paul writes that: “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” When you read this verse do you think, “Well, now there’s a two way street…” or, “How logical…”? If so, I have no further argument.

    To say: “It makes sense that I would be pursued to be redeemed” is to confirm one has no understanding of the gift that has been extended to him.


  5. Point taken … and compliment taken if there was one. Setting aside all light-heartedness, may I ask why there are many who are well-educated in language and few who are well-educated in love?

    I actually wasn’t being light-hearted. You want to persuade people to embrace and live out the love of Jesus. If this is true, you must use some method to convince them. Most of the time, people communicate through words. If you don’t have the words you need to express the wondrous idea that God incarnated his Son, went to the cross and died, how can your mission go forward? “How can they hear without a preacher?”

    Why do you try to set two things against each other that are not in conflict? Education does not necessitate lack of love. Love does not necessitate lack of education. Are you trying to convict me/us of a failure at loving others? If so, what basis might you have? There’s a bit of presumption in such a claim. If you really see a contradiction between education and love, I would like to hear what it is and how you could come to that conclusion based on the nature of human beings.


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