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The New Illiteracy


The new visual media is pleasurable, but it is a tyrant. While the reader's imagination can select what it wishes to focus on, in electronic visual media the mind is pummeled with powerful stimuli that bypass conscious and subconscious defenses.

Michael O'Brien

Like it or not, we are fast becoming an illiterate people. Yes, most of us can read. Indeed, adults and children now read more books, numerically speaking, than at any other time in history. But our minds are becoming increasingly passive and image oriented because of the tremendous influence of the visual media. Television, film, and the video revolution dominate our culture like nothing before in the history of mankind. In addition, computers, word processors, pocket calculators, telephones, and a host of similar inventions have lessened the need for the disciplines of the mind that in former generation were the distinguishing marks of an intelligent person. In those days man learned to read and write because of necessity or privilege: maps, medical lore, the history of the race, genealogies, and recipes. Each of these could be handed down intact to the forthcoming generations far more easily, and with greater accuracy, in written form than by word of mouth.

So too with the ancient myths and legends that embodied the spiritual intuitions of a people. The printed word guaranteed that no essential detail would be lost. And if the storyteller had the soul of an artist, he could also impart the flavor of his times, the spiritual climate in which his small and large dramas were enacted. Words made permanent on a page would to some extent overcome the weaknesses of memory and avoid the constant tendency in human nature to distort and to select according to tastes and prejudices. Furthermore, the incredible act of mastering a written language greatly increased a person's capacity for clear thought. And people capable of thought were also better able at least in theory to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors and to make a more humane world. The higher goal of literacy was the ability to recognize truth and to live according to it.

Something is happening in modern culture that is unprecedented in human history. At the same time that the skills of the mind, especially the power of discernment, are weakened, many of the symbols of the Western world are being turned topsy-turvy. This is quite unlike what happened to the pagan faiths of the ancient classical world with the gradual fading of their mythologies as their civilizations developed. That was a centuries-long draining away of the power and meaning of certain mythological symbols. How many Greeks in the late classical period, for example, truly believed that Zeus ruled the world from Mount Olympus? How many citizens of imperial Rome believed that Neptune literally controlled the oceans? In Greece the decline of cultic paganism occurred as the Greeks advanced in pursuit of truth through philosophy. For many Greeks the gods came to be understood as personifications of ideals or principles in the universe. The Romans, on the other hand, grew increasingly humanistic and materialistic. Though the mystery cults of the East flooded into the West as the Empire spread, the Roman ethos maintained more or less a basic pragmatism; at its best it pursued thc common good, civic order, philosophical reflection. At its worst it was superstitious and unspeakably cruel. But all of this was a long, slow process of development, inculturation, and decline.

By contrast, the loss of our world of symbols is the result of a deliberate attack upon truth, and this loss is occurring with astonishing rapidity. On practically every level of culture, good is no longer presented as good but rather as a prejudice held by a limited religious system (Christianity). Neither is evil any longer perceived as evil in the way we once understood it. Evil is increasingly depicted as a means to achieve good.

With television in most homes throughout the Western world, images bombard our minds in a way never before seen. Children are especially vulnerable to the power of images, precisely because they are at a stage of development when their fundamental concepts of reality are being formed. Their perceptions and understanding are being shaped at every moment, as they have been in every generation, through a ceaseless ingathering of words and images. But in a culture that deliberately targets the senses and overwhelms them, employing all the genius of technology and art, children have fewer resources to discern rightly than at any other time in history. Flooded with a vast array of entertaining stimuli, children and parents suppose that they live in a world of multiple choices. In fact, their choices are shrinking steadily, because as the quantity increases, quality decreases. Our society is the first in history to produce such a culture and to export it to the world, sweeping away the cultures of various nations, peoples, and races and establishing the world's first global civilization. But what is the character of this new civilization?

The modern mind is no longer formed on a foundation of absolute truths, which past societies found written in the natural law and which were revealed to us more explicitly in Christianity. At one time song and story handed down this world of insight from generation to generation. But our songs and stories are being usurped. Films, videos, and commercial television have come close to replacing the Church, the arts, and the university as the primary shaper of the modern sense of reality. Most children now drink from these polluted wells, which seem uncleanable and unaccountable to anyone except the money-makers. The children who do not drink from them can feel alienated from their own generation, because they have less talk and play to share with friends who have been fed only on the new electronic tales.

Busy modern parents seem to have less time to read to their children or to tell them stories. Many children grow up never having heard a nursery rhyme, not to mention a real fairy tale, legend, or myth. Instead, hours of their formative years are spent watching electronic entertainment. The sad result is that many chi1dren are being robbed of vital energies, the native power of the imagination replaced by an addict's appetite for visceral stimuli, and creative play replaced with lots of expensive toys that are the spinoffs of the shows they watch. Such toys stifle imaginative and creative development because they do practically everything for the child, turning him into the plaything of market strategists. Moreover, most media role models are far from wholesome. Dr. Brandon Centerwall, writing in the June 10, 1992, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, links television violence with the soaring crime rates. There would be ten thousand fewer murders, seventy thousand fewer rapes, and seven hundred thousand fewer violent assaults, he says, if television had never been invented.

Many parents exercise very little control over their children's consumption of entertainment. For those who try to regulate the tube, there is a constant struggle. A parent may stand guard by the television set, ready to turn it off or change the channel if offensive material flashes across the screen, but he will not be quick enough. Immoral or grotesque scenes can be implanted in his children's minds before he has a chance to flick the remote control. He may even fall victim to his own fascination and lose the will to do so. Scientific studies have shown conclusively that within thirty seconds of watching television, a viewer enters a measurable trancelike state. This allows the material shown to bypass the critical faculty, so that images and ideas are absorbed by the mind without conscious reflection. Even when the contents of a program are not grossly objectionable, hours of boredom and nonsense are tolerated, because the viewer keeps hoping insanely that the show will get better. Television beguiles many of the senses at once, and the viewer is locked into its pace in order not to "miss anything".

But perhaps the shows ought to be missed. When one listens carefully to many of the programs made for children, one frequently hears the strains of modern Gnosticism: If you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends. You decide. You choose. Truth is what you believe it to be. Right and wrong are what you feel are right and wrong for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must be a rebel. You make yourself; you create your own reality. We can make a perfect world. Backward older people, especially ignorant traditionalists, are the major stumbling blocks to building a peaceful, healthy, happy planet. And so forth. It's all there in children's culture, and it pours into their minds with unrelenting persistence, sometimes as the undercurrent but increasingly as the overt, central message. What stands in the path of this juggernaut? What contradicts these falsehoods? Parental authority? The Church? In film after film parents (especially fathers) are depicted as abusers at worst, bumbling fools at best. Christians are depicted as vicious bigots, and ministers of religion as either corrupt hypocrites or confused clowns.

The young heroes and heroines of these dramas are the mouthpieces of the ideologies of modern social and political movements, champions of materialism, sexual libertarianism, environmentalism, feminism, globalism, monism, and all the other isms that are basically about reshaping reality to fit the new world envisioned by the intellectual élites. Victims of their own gnosis (which they see in grand terms of broadness of vision, freedom, and creativity), they are in fact reducing the mystery and majesty of creation to a kind of Flatland. If this were a matter of simple propaganda, it would not get very far. No one can survive long in Flatland, because at root it is busy demolishing the whole truth about man, negating the ultimate worth of the human person, and turning him into an object to be consumed or manipulated. Thus, the propagandist must prevent any awakening of conscience and derail the development of real imagination in his audience. He must inflame the imagination in all the wrong directions and supply a steady dose of pleasurable stimuli as a reward mechanism. He must calm any uneasiness in the conscience by supplying many social projects, causes, and issues that the young can embrace with passionate pseudo-idealism.

The late Dr. Russell Kirk, in a lecture on the moral imagination, warned that a people who reject the right order of the soul and the true good of society will in the end inherit fire and slaughter. When culture is deprived of moral vision, the rise of the diabolic imagination is the inevitable result. What begins as rootless idealism soon passes into the sphere of narcotic illusions, then ends in diabolic regimes. (1) Tyrants come in many forms, and only the ones who inflict painful indignities on us are immediately recognizable for what they are. But what happens to the discernment of a people when a tyrant arrives without any of the sinister costumes of brutal dictators? What happens when the errors come in pleasing disguises and are promoted by talented people who know full well how to use all the resources of modern psychology to make of the human imagination the instrument of their purpose? How long will it take the people of our times to understand that when humanist sentiments replace moral absolutes, it is not long before we see idealists corrupting conscience in the name of liberty and destroying human lives in the name of humanity?

In many ways this new visual culture is pleasurable, but it is a tyrant. Literature, on the other hand, is democratic. One can pause and put a book down and debate with the author. One can take it up later, after there has been time to think or do some research. The reader's imagination can select what it wishes to focus on, whereas in electronic visual media the mind is pummeled with powerful stimuli that bypass conscious and subconscious defenses. It is tragic, therefore, that authentic literature is slowly disappearing from public and school libraries and being replaced by a tidal wave of children's books written by people who appear to have been convinced by cultic psychology or converted in part or whole by the neopagan cosmos. Significantly, their use of language is much closer to the operations of electronic culture, and their stories far more visual than the thoughtful fiction of the past. They are evangelists of a religion that they deny is a religion. Yet, in the new juvenile literature there is a relentless preoccupation with spiritual powers, with the occult, with perceptions of good and evil that are almost always blurred and at times downright inverted. At least in the old days dragons looked and acted like dragons. This, I think, not only reflects truth in a deep spiritual sense, it is also a lot more interesting. A landscape with dragons is seldom boring.


  1. Russell Kirk, "The Perversity of Recent Fiction: Reflections on the Moral Imagination'', in Reclaiming a Patrimony (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1982).


O'Brien, Michael. The New Illiteracy. In Chapter 4 of Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 59-65.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind - ISBN 0-89870-678-5.

Chapter six proceeds to analyse the best fantasy literature now available describing what it is that makes the work of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald so exceptional.

The Author

obrien13obrienftsmMichael D. O'Brien is an author and painter. His books include The Father's Tale, Father Elijah: an apocalypse, A Cry of Stone, Sophia House, Theophilos, Island of the World, Winter Tales, Voyage to Alpha Centauri, A Landscape with Dragons: the Battle For Your Child's Mind, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, and William Kurelek: Painter and Prophet. His paintings hang in churches, monasteries, universities, community collections and private collections around the world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site at:

Copyright © 1998 Ignatius Press
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