The Great Education Crisis: The Collapse of Literacy In Anglophone Nations

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In the western world, education is in steep decline.

Over the past 20 years, literacy and numeracy attainment has fallen throughout the English-speaking world. Alarm bells have been rung in Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, it is now estimated that nearly 20% of the adult population cannot read. This disturbingly high statistic shows no sign of slowing. According to Concordia University Portland, there is a brewing education crisis in the United States. It cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that shows:

…46 percent of white students scored at or above proficient. Just 17 percent of black students and 25 percent of Latino students scored proficient.

Or, this means that more than half of all white students in the United States do not achieve proficiency in English, and for black students, a staggering 83% are not proficient readers.

Multiple test regimes confirm the steep decline in literacy in the United States, and an even worse decline in numeracy:

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released the results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The PIACC provided an overview of proficiency in adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. In literacy, people born after 1980 in the U.S. scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Overall, U.S. adults aged 15-65 scored below the international average in all three categories— ranking near the very bottom in numeracy.

In some centres – such as Detroit – 93% of students are either illiterate or lag well behind expected literacy achievement. The reappearance of mass illiteracy in the United States has prompted documentary investigations such as Make America Read, that explores some of the reasons children are not learning how to read, and the efforts to help illiterate students as old as 14 to catch up. Despite some success, after-school programs and government interventions seem to make little difference. Metropolitan islands ofilliteracy are getting bigger in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, in 2001, it was shown that illiteracy had exceeded 1912 levels. By 2016 the United Kingdom had been placed last out of 23 OECD countries on international scores that compared the literacy rate for 16-19 year olds. Currently, the United Kingdom is the only OECD country where “the literacy of 16-24 year old people is below that of people aged 55 and over”.

In Canada, things are just as dire. In a manual produced by Canadian police services titled “Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime With Literacy“, the researchers estimated that 42% of the Canadian population would not have the basic reading skills to perform everyday tasks. They concluded that the average literacy score for Canadians is “near the bottom of Level 3”. Level 3 reading is defined as the basic minimum for a person to be employable and able to cope in an information society.

In Australia, the Productivity Commission estimates the average Australian highschooler is now a year behind in mathematics compared to their 2004 counterparts. The trend toward lower and lower literacy attainment in Australia has sped up in recent years, despite the official claim that the overwhelming majority of students achieve national benchmarks. In response, the Australian Federal Government wants to introduce a phonics test for all first year primary school children.

The test consists of real and made up words in order to identify which children can actually sound out words, and which have simply memorised word blocks. When this test was rolled out last year in one Australian state, it found that only 43% of students reached the minimum benchmarks for reading.

Likewise, New Zealand has plunging declines with some surveys indicating that 40% of the population are unable to read at a functional level.

OFFICIAL STATISTICS

These figures stand in stark contrast to officially reported statistics that typically claim a literacy rate of 99%. No official statistical body in any Anglophone nation currently acknowledges that illiteracy – whether outright or functional – is widespread. How could this be possible when it runs counter to the research of academics and the lived experience of so many people?

Official statistics are often compiled from the results of national testing regimes that measure student attainment against “national standards”. These standards are typically set quite low and the vast majority of students are able to pass them. When the standards are raised, however, the number of students able to achieve them plummets drastically. This provides perverse incentives to both bureaucrats and teachers’ unions to not alter existing testing regimens.

Recently, this has been played out publicly in Australia. In an effort to improve literacy, state governments have introduced new, higher standards of achievement. The new standards caused a nearly 30% decline in reported student proficiency:

Just 62.6 per cent of Year 7 students reached the proficiency standard for reading last year, compared with 93 per cent listed as reaching the national minimum standard in the 2017-18 Budget papers. And 64.3 per cent of Year 9 students achieved proficiency in reading, compared with 92 per cent reaching the national minimum.

Since official statistics in Anglophone nations usually indicate that everything is going splendidly, it is left to international testing regimes to blow the lid on the state of education in these countries. These groups use their own achievement standards, which are much more objective. They conduct their testing on behalf of international economic agencies and are not beholden to domestic politics.

Domestic agencies that are not connected to any government or teacher body, almost always find a serious crisis. Book councils, PhD level researchers, local reading groups, surveys, dyslexia foundations, and so on, generally report high levels of illiteracy.

Part of the reason the crisis is overlooked in official statistics is that there is no agreed-upon definition of literacy. The official definition of literacy can range dramatically. In some countries, being able to write your name and understand newspapers is enough to qualify a person as being literate.

All of this has long-term implications for the economic and social future of Anglophone nations. The uncomfortable truth is that mass illiteracy – either outright or functional – is returning to these nations very quickly. This has serious implications for crime rates, civic participation, economic growth, the emergence of class systems, and religious observance. Worse still, governments seem to be able to do very little to stem the decline.

This is because the decline is largely driven by changing cultural values and is not entirely the result of government incompetence. Literacy and intelligence have been routinely ridiculed in youth culture for decades. Doing well at school is valued less than the affirmation of a social circle. Among working and middle-class people, two social groups that have experienced the steepest declines in literacy, entertainment is increasingly more valued than education.

I can remember a visible demonstration of this when I visited a number of houses in a newly-built lower-middle class suburb in a major urban centre near where I lived. While all of the houses featured expensive entertainment instalments – in one house I saw a cinema room with blackout curtains and a wall-mounted video projector – there was no evidence of any serious reading at all. Some houses featured a large television screen in every single room (even when this resulted in people having to squeeze sideways between furniture), but not a single bookshelf or bound book. If I saw mammoth television screens dominating entire walls of a living space, I could predict with a high degree of accuracy the near-absence of any reading culture at all. At best, I saw in one house a few trashy magazines.

Professor Neil Postman wrote the seminal “Amusing Ourselves to Death“. He foresaw the inevitable effects of a screen-based culture as far back as the 1980’s. It is impossible not to question the influence of technologies on illiteracy rates when they are chiefly visual, operated with icons, offer voice-to-text features, and largely replace text with video and pictures.

IMPLICATIONS

Satan hates the Lord and God’s people who bear his name. If he is to step up his assault on the church, part of his attack strategy will be to downgrade literacy in order to cut people off from the life-giving word of God. If people cannot read the scriptures they will not come to Christ. If people will not come to Christ they will remain alienated from God and the church will be weakened here on earth. In a double-assault, the devil seems intent on replacing literacy with an abundance of distracting devices that shut down the mind and drown out the conscience. This not only makes it harder for people to discover the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, but also makes it harder for them to detect error and manipulation.

Highly developed literacy almost always goes hand-in-hand with a developed reasoning ability. People whose lives are characterised by irrationality, thoughtlessness, and susceptibility to deceptive arguments often lack the literacy necessary to discover truth, and God’s wisdom that would empower them to work through it.

Whatever the devil is up to – and we cannot speculate about the mind of evil – within the next decades, the Anglophone world will almost certainly become less educated and literate than it was, with the rise in attendant problems like increased criminality, lower economic development, more ill-health, and multitudes who will give ready belief to “every wind of doctrine” that blows past. We see the outworking of this latter problem already in the astonishing rise of conspiracy theories in the Western world that grip people so tightly they hoard food, build shelters, and prepare for preposterous scenarios.

As Christians we have a duty and obligation bequeathed to us by the privilege of being entrusted with the Bible – the very speaking of God to us through the mouths of his prophets, apostles, and Son – to be concerned about literacy. We ought to cultivate a reading culture in our homes and lives. We must be deeply concerned to impress a high literacy standard upon our children. We must energetically promote reading in the world around us, and to be ever-vigilant in taking care never to lose our connection with the word of God which is sufficient to make us wise to everlasting salvation.

Radicalised by Jesus: Serve the King, No Matter the Cost

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Jesus is always forthright when he deals with people. He is clear; uncompromising; and honest. He lays down on the table the price of discipleship. He will deal with us if we are prepared to deal with him on his terms. And one of those terms is that Christians must be willing to pay any price to know him, to follow him, and to abide with him.

What if this is too frightening? What if the price is too steep? Then Jesus flatly states that such a man cannot be my disciple. There is only one way. And if we are not prepared to pay the price, then we need to be honest and just admit that we do not love him enough.

When Jesus speaks to his Apostles in Matthew 10 he calmly outlines the stratospheric level of commitment he expects from them. It is one of the most remarkable passages in Matthew’s narration because here it is Jesus of Nazareth himself who is defining what it means to follow him. The words he speaks are radical and illusion-shattering because they were meant to be. They sound dangerous, because they were meant to show us how great salvation is. And how fearful damnation.

Here the Lord was expressly intending to radicalise his disciples and thereby to thin out the ranks. For if this is what following Jesus looks like, anyone with a superficial or fleeting enthusiasm would not stick around for very long.

Jesus lays out five key points. This is his criteria for discipleship:

  1. Do not fear death, for to be killed in service to Jesus is victory
  2. Do not be afraid of any harm done to the body by unbelievers
  3. Be bold in publicly proclaiming the lordship of Christ
  4. Love Jesus more than every other love, passion, or relationship
  5. Prepare for social exile; discipleship will be a final departure from the world

Top of the list is a willingness to die. Literally die. This is utterly contrary to the west, where people are so soft and cossetted that they do not even like to talk about death, much less talk about how to die well. Neither is this true only of unbelievers. It is a sad reflection on the church that too few western Christians really contemplate martyrdom. Too many Christians are not mentally and spiritually prepared for it. It is not preached. It is not our concern. We do not cultivate a willingness to put our lives on the line if it should ever be necessary for our testimony to Jesus.

When Jesus speaks of taking up the cross he means an inward disposition toward the world and toward life. We are to live as if martyrdom were around the corner. Taking up the cross gives us a new enlightened outlook in which we start to see the world for what it really is: our temporary camping ground en route to the Promised Land. Cross carrying yields a disposition that punches through the materialistic, languid illusions of our age. For once a man is condemned to crucifixion, and walks the dusty road up to Calvary with the crossbeam over his shoulder, what does he think about? What holds his attention? How does his view of things change?

The man on the march to crucifixion no longer existed. His community reviled him. He might have to walk between rows of a jeering crowd. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were up for grabs by the guards on execution duty. He no longer was master of his own life for it was shortly to be taken from him. The man on the road toward his own personal Calvary would see no future for himself on this side of eternity. If he believed in God, at the hour the nails were riven home, amidst the flaming agony, he surely believes with all his heart. There is no longer anything left to cloud his faith; no longer anything of this earth to hold him down. He is truly free. Free enough to die for God.

Faith that sneers at death, and holds pain in derision for the sake of Christ is in short supply today. And this is why the church withers in the west. Christianity was never meant to be transmitted in safe and cosy ways, without price, without sacrifice, and without tears and sweat. It is a shortage of these things that suggests to unbelievers that Christianity is not really believed, even by those who profess it. And maybe we don’t. Maybe, in the west, we don’t believe in eternity and the glory of God. Not really. And that is the real reason we are so scared of the radicalism of Jesus.

Leonard Ravenhill – the great evangelistic preacher whose ministry blazed with indefatigable zeal for thirty years – once remarked that the Islamic world had seen a revival that was even then causing the Muhammadan creed to be transmitted deep into Western nations:

My dear country of England, in the last 25 years, they’ve closed 600 branch churches of the Church of England alone, leave out the Methodists and others.

But in the place of 600 churches, we have now six hundred mosques. The greatest revival in the world right now is amongst the Muslims. Why? Because they’re prepared to die. You can’t scare them.

Leonard Ravenhill had his finger on the pulse of Islam ten years earlier than most Christians in the west, who remained blissfully unaware of the Islamic Revival that began in the early 1970’s until it crashed into their awareness in a swirl of burning wreckage and splintering metal on September 11th, 2001. Despite the efforts of global authorities and the expenditure of uncountable pyramids of gold, radical Islam continues to spread across the world. Why? Because they are not afraid. Islamic radicals impress their fellow Muslims with the sheer weight of their courage. Although their religion is false, men and women will always recognise genuine belief when it manifests itself in a person unafraid to die.

Before Christianity will revive in the west, it is going to take the outbreak of this kind of faith and consciousness of the eternal stakes. This is something that Ravenhill understood very well.

Few men have looked, worked, prayed for the approach of Christian revival like Ravenhill. He was a watchman on the city walls who strained his eyes for a lifetime searching for the first rays of sunlight that would herald the dawn. As far back as 1959 he wrote the book that has become one of the modern classics of Christian literature: Why Revival Tarries. In this book, he flatly declares that there is no Christian revival because modern Christians do not really want it. Too many Christians are too contented not to see great movements of the majesty and work of God. There is a shallowness in our witness; in short, we have lost the dangerous, radical dynamism of the earliest disciples who embraced the cross with a full willingness for the glory and the cost.

This spirit of self-preservation was unknown to the earliest Christians. They were mostly poor people, and they lived in the shadow of death cast by the sophisticated totalitarian government of ancient Rome. For them, martyrdom was not repellent, but a privilege. They drank deeply from the spirit of the words “take up the cross and follow me“. Some of the earliest saints were so desirous for the promised martyr’s glory that they courted death. Some of the more radical Christians set pagan temples on fire, and then waited purposefully for a howling mob to show up and kill them.

They revelled in the chance to die. This fact alone teaches us in our timid 21st century how much we have drifted from the fiery, self-sacrificing zeal and eternal outlook known by the first Christians. This, we see in the life of Ignatius of Antioch, who was famously taken to Rome for martyrdom. En route to his certain death, he wrote numerous letters that were soaked in the craving for a victor’s crown from Christ. Many of these express an eagerness to die and exalt in suffering for Christ’s name. The most famous is his letter written to Christians at Rome, “I am God’s wheat”:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.

The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.

Ravenhill predicted the return of martyr flames in the West. Certainly the walls are closing in on the church. The day is already here when orthodox Christian belief fits so uncomfortably with the spirit of the age it is even now irritating it like a particle of sand under the skin. This is a sign of our times – a demonstration of great spiritual realities unfolding around us – that in the space of less than a hundred years, the ancient landmark of Christianity which stood unchallenged for centuries has made the transition from being normal to completely offensive and alien.

Biblical Christianity is only tolerated because it is not understood. When the core tenets of Christianity are explained unbelievers reject it as “hateful”. Each point of the doctrine taught by our Lord is questioned and challenged by this world.  Dr. Michael Jensen, rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Australia, wrote a few years ago to prove this very thing:

It is pretty obvious from recent public discussions of the place of faith in public schools that completely orthodox, historic Christian teachings, held by the vast majority of Christian denominations, are held by some people to be “extreme”.

Recently, a fellow panellist on an ABC TV show “accused” me of believing that Jesus was the only way to God – which I do believe – as if this was somehow news, or evidence of cult-like weirdness. In another context, something I had written about the sinfulness of humankind – the most easily verified of Christian doctrines I would have thought – was thrown at me as if I had just called for a holy war.

The NSW Greens Education spokesman John Kaye was aghast that Christian material taught sexual abstinence outside of marriage, again as if this was somehow evidence of the kind of radical extremism that we ought to use the force of law to stamp out.

A great movement of God is desperately needed in the west – that Christians would again be radicalised by Jesus and filled with so much courage that we can throw caution to the wind in service to him. It is for this that we ought to be earnestly praying; for ourselves and for our fellow believers. We have become so weak! So pallid and limp. We are spiritually sick and have so little appetite for spiritual bread and spiritual riches in Christ that we no longer even realise it. The patient’s pulse is nearly undetectable.

Meanwhile, our brethren in China forsake their possessions and comforts for the sake of Christ, and the church is now at least sixty million strong. Our brethren in Africa are shot by marauding Islamists, or they travel for miles on foot to worship the living God and have not a bite to eat when they return home. But though they have nothing – like the church at Smyrna – yet are they rich! They do not meet in polished buildings or have flawless services, but they have a habitation that is secure for all eternity; mansions of glory.

The Spirit and the bride say, Come Lord Jesus! This must be our prayer. That there would be a great movement of God in our hearts and the wider church. That we would be transformed so that that Christianity would no longer be a hobby confined to Sunday morning and a few prayer sessions, but that it should be the ceaseless motion of our lives. That a pursuit for holiness and sanctification would dominate our passions, and overcome our fear of loss. That we would invest serious time on our knees, travailing as in birth, for a greater awareness of God and the true conversion of precious souls.

Come Lord Jesus, indeed. That we would have the vistas of eternity open large before us, shrivelling the few years of this life up before our eyes. That we would thirst for God himself, and for holiness. And be so set on fire with love for our Lord Jesus Christ that we would truly take up our cross daily, and follow him.