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They Who Travel in Realms of Gold

I am too young, by nearly two decades, to have read and appreciated Time magazine during its heyday, which was the mid- to late-1940s. In those years this most popular newsweekly was written for readers who actually could read. The feature stories were long, often elegantly written. They had substance. They respected the reader and presumed he had a broad if basic understanding of civics and history and the humanities, which he did, if he had managed to graduate from high school.

Perhaps the most eloquent staff writer in those years was Whittaker Chambers. I have a book that includes the essays he wrote for Time —all of them written anonymously; in those years no one at the magazine received a byline—and to read them is to weep over the decline in American literacy.

In the 1940s, Time was written for ordinary, literate Americans. In the 2010s, Time is written for ordinary, illiterate Americans. Where once there were essays of several thousand words, essays that were worth cutting out and discussing with one’s family over the dinner table, now the magazine is comprised chiefly of elements that are too short even to be labeled articles. Back then, the magazine wrote about matters of import. Today, like most magazines, it writes about celebrities.

The level of writing—particularly the diction—has declined too. From any of Chambers’ essays I could extract two dozen words that almost no reader of today’s Time could define accurately. It’s not that Chambers used difficult words. He didn’t. It’s that today’s readers suffer from two generations of progressive and deliberate stupidification.

A century and a half ago, the most popular schoolbooks in America were McGuffey’s Readers. The standard edition included one reader for each grade level, through sixth grade. (After that, most children were done with formal education and were expected to work on the farm.) When I glanced through the final book, intended for 12-year-olds, I was surprised—and delighted—to find among the readings substantial selections from Shakespeare and Milton.

Today, few public high school students are exposed to Shakespeare, and I wonder whether any of them come across Milton at all. The situation is hardly better in college. Most students graduate knowing Shakespeare’s name (as they know Caesar’s and Beethoven’s, without knowing a thing about them) but not knowing any of his plays. Milton? Forget it. Virgil and Homer and Dante? How few are the college students who read anything at all of these classics! (It wasn’t that many decades ago that a man would be embarrassed to admit he hadn’t read the whole of the Iliad.)

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to This Rock. If you have read this magazine for any length of time, you know it is not targeted at the average American or even the average Catholic. It is targeted at Catholics (and others) who can think and who like thinking. It is meant for readers who realize that apprehending the faith requires work and who don’t mind having to work—in fact, who delight in having their intellects challenged and their horizons expanded.

Of course, this means This Rock never will be a mass-circulation magazine. While there may be 70 million Catholics in America, I doubt there are 70 thousand who would be inclined to read This Rock on a regular basis—not because only one Catholic in a thousand is literate (we’re a little better off than that, I think), but because few take their faith seriously enough to apply their minds to it deliberately.

The good news is that there are such Catholics, and there always will be such Catholics. They are the real future of the Church (and therefore of our culture) because they know that the future is not built upon a fleeting present but on a perdurable past. To them, Shakespeare and Homer and Dante are not just names.

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