Are we illiterate?

The classical ideal of Latin education was to produce the orator, not the writer. The medieval ideal of Latin education was to produce the writer, not the orator, who had mostly disappeared, anyway. The modern ideal of education is to produce neither, but the ideal citizen. This citizen, however, is informed by a model of citizenship whose genealogy owes everything to ancient and medieval types – to the orator as well as to the writer, the rhetor and the scriptor.

In classical times, spoken and written Latin went hand in hand. In the medieval period, they were no longer holding hands, but making children out of wedlock. These were the modern languages, on the one hand, and neo(classical) Latin rhetoric. They were never to hold hands again.

In modern times, spoken and written Latin have disappeared. Not completely, but surely enough to stop generating new modes and new styles. If written Latin is still taught, it is either as a museum piece or as the membership card to give access to the museum.

The modern ideal of education has no time for language, spoken or written. That is not to say language – and all its attending servant branches – aren’t taught remarkably in many of today’s schools and universities. They most certainly are, and yield sweet fruit. It’s just that they are no longer part of the ideal education.

If the world had turned its back on language, then it’d be alright to say that language is no longer part of the ideal. But what we see in almost all areas of life is a hunger for language – the language of persuasion, the language of peacemaking, the language of responsible politics, the language of decency and constructive change, the language of beauty. Here, language means more than metaphor, more than discourse, more than a certain attitude, though it is all of these things too. It also means, however, what it is, simply language.

Just as we say about someone who can’t read or write in a given language that he or she is illiterate, so we can say that what that hunger for language mentioned above means is that we have become illiterate in many languages. We have become illiterate in religious language – despite the unnerving ubiquity of religion; illiterate in oratory – despite our undying supplication for responsible political leaders, illiterate in classical political theory – despite living in the age of political crisis; illiterate in the language of cultural history – despite being faced with competing forms of reductionism; illiterate, that is, in all of those areas that are no longer part of the established paradigm, the water we all swim in.

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