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Tolle, Lege

For a year and more, I’ve been trying to learn Biblical Hebrew. Studying Hebrew is not like learning French or Italian or German. It takes you back to when you first learned to read because you have to become fluent with strange letters you’re seeing for the very first time, and practice using them – reading backwards, from right to left, with vowels (such as they are) mostly running underneath the consonants, when they’re given at all. But if you do, you can rather quickly parse out, in the original, stupendously luminous phrases, such as וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר (vayomer elohim yehi or vayehi or): “And God said let there be light, and there was light.” What does all the effort matter compared with that?

Vast consequences can flow from reading. St. Augustine of Hippo was a keen reader, but for most of the early part of his life restless and unhappy. It was only after getting to know the great archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, and after numerous wandering steps that one day in Milan, in a garden, he heard a mysterious voice – he was never able to identify the source – saying: Tolle, lege, “Take up and read.” He picked up a Bible, opened it at random, and finally found some peace after coming upon this from St. Paul:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,  to gratify its desires. (Rom.13:13)

Augustine must have already been familiar with the basic idea. But spurred by that mysterious voice, he read it almost like a child whose eyes were opened to the written words for the very first time.

When you read what learned “experts,” out of touch with their inner child, sometimes write, it becomes clear that learning to read and write is not an unmixed blessing. And not only in crucial moral matters like abortion, but even about many stubborn facts, like male-female biology, which our current non-culture tries to talk into non-existence.

Even at the everyday level, the written word is a two-edged sword. When G.K. Chesterton was visiting America, he walked down Broadway one night, and remarked, “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

Still, we need many things, both complex and simple, that we get from reading – reading well. Too many of us aren’t getting them. The New York Review of Books, of all places – once monotonously liberal but these days steadily “woke” – just published a surprising lead article [1] detailing the disastrous decades of whole language teaching (under various names) instead of the older discipline of phonics.

The newer “methodology” encourages young people to guess at words and avoids telling students that they’ve guessed wrong (it makes them feel bad). The older approach took real effort, by both teachers and students, over the earliest, most basic steps, and made students repeat things until they actually got them right.


But the results of these experiments with children are in. Sixty-seven percent of fourth-graders in America are “not proficient readers” – an obviously bureaucratic formula that probably underestimates the problem. For Black children of the same age, it’s 82 percent. Phonics takes more pains, but demonstrably works.

And that’s just for starters. We rightly worry these days that students know shockingly little about American history, Western Civilization, the fundamentals of Old and New Testaments. But how can they if they don’t become “proficient” readers?  Or when their teachers have been pervasively indoctrinated in ideologies even more damaging than poor reading “methodologies.”

It’s out of that educational witches’ brew that students – from those who never finish high school to Ivy League graduates – grow up confident that they know a great deal about our civilization, which they regard as an unrelieved expanse of evils viewed through the lenses of Critical Race Theory and “intersectionality” (i.e., mutually reinforcing claims of victimhood owing to racism, sexism, homo- and trans– phobias, micro-aggressions, “marginalization,” etc.)

They regard their own civilization as purely imperialist, colonialist, triumphalist, with no inkling of its self-critical side – mostly stemming from Christianity – about everything from slavery to economic exploitation.  Absent the precise word, they’re utterly oblivious about how the pursuit of power, under the cloak of wooly notions like “equity,” inevitably replaces the pursuit of truth.

This is Catholic Schools Week – more on that tomorrow. But the current mission of Catholic schools must confront the current state of the culture. Many of us feel that we are in something quite like apocalyptic times. We can hope and pray that it’s only a passing feeling, owing to several simultaneous crises in the Church and the world.

But it’s worth remembering, contrary to the Enlightenment myth that Christianity led to the Dark Ages, that after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was St. Benedict and the monasteries that preserved learning. And then Charlemagne, who began the reconstruction of the West, knew that he needed military power, of course, but also widespread education. He brought in Alcuin – “The most learned man anywhere to be found,” and other learned clerics to help create a whole network of schools to educate the people and in the process produced what we know as the Carolingian Renaissance, the beginning of the recovery of European culture.

For us today, truly Catholic education is equally urgent. And there’s a crucial financial component often overlooked. The rich can afford Catholic schools; the poor often get scholarships. The large middle class has been left struggling.

My pastor has developed a solution: he helps with tuition when students transition from public to Catholic schools – a practical measure that should be widely reproduced for the sake of students, but also to give people alarmed about our current crises ways they can do something that actually helps.

The alternative is to let things just continue, to the detriment of both faith and reason – which, as we can read in history, is not a very Catholic thing.


*Image: The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico (and workshop), c. [Musée Thomas-Henry, Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, France]

You may also enjoy:

Eduardo Echeverria’s The Faith Once for All Delivered [2]

James Matthew Wilson’s Augustine’s True Story [3]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.