ImageOnce upon a time, there lived a group of very poor people who couldn’t read or write. In due time, some became people of faith and started going to church. But they were handicapped by their illiteracy and could not join fully in the worship activities.

Some who saw this were upset and wanted to help the illiterate poor people to learn reading and writing. Others scoffed, saying such people did not need this. They could follow the church services just by hearing, and others could read for them and pass on what they should know.

The literacy-advocates thought this argument ridiculous, so they began to form societies to teach people to read and write. Gradually, a loosely-knit movement formed. Thousands who became literate used those skills to better themselves, both socially and financially.

As those people improved their social lot and grew in spiritual understanding, the people of conscience who had helped them saw that others in the land also lacked literacy. Many were children living wild in the country’s great cities. A decision was made to form societies to help those children become literate also – thereby enabling them to read the Bible and also become people of faith. The literacy movement was, at its heart, a missionary effort.

To help these children, the movement established “schools” that convened on Sundays. All children were invited to learn reading and writing, and to study the Bible. Classes were stratified according to students’ literacy-levels. In time, the movement helped hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of children to become people of faith. The social and spiritual influence of these children changed the direction of their nation for many decades to come.

This interesting story – which perhaps seems somewhat far-fetched – actually happened. Not in some far-away place, but in America. The original, illiterate poor people were slaves who embraced Christianity early in the nineteenth century. Christians who cared about their spiritual growth and temporal welfare helped thousands learn to read and write.

After the Civil War, as slavery ended, the literacy movement expanded to cities where many children lived on the streets. The schools that were formed to bring them literacy were called Sunday Schools. Thousands of these children studied the Bible and became people of faith. Their Christian influence persists in America down to the present day. They changed the nation. But, of course, it was the founders of the Sunday Schools who did it. Their vision made the difference.

Millions of children (like me), from ordinary middle-class families, grew up going to Sunday School. Most of us never knew that the original purpose of Sunday Schools was to reach and help children from backgrounds far less advantaged than ours. The Sunday School literacy movement is one of America’s great, untold stories. The country would be far different, had it not happened.

Readers who have been good enough to follow my ruminations in this column-space over recent years know that the story of the Sunday School movement is one of my favorite topics. I never tire of retelling how it changed the country. One of the reasons I keep rehearsing the story is that I hope to see a new “literacy” movement spawned by churches across the country.

I foresee two needs that demand a new movement. The first is English-literacy like that needed by nineteenth-century America. Although free public education is now available to most children, millions still read poorly or not at all. Many are children of immigrants – both legal and illegal. For a confluence of reasons – including deliberate attempts to keep immigrants in their native languages, for political reasons – many immigrant children have poor English skills. This retards their progress in school and helps relegate them to permanent underclass status.

But illiteracy is not just an “immigrant” problem. Many native-born Americans also read poorly. Their schools and families have failed them. Without significant help, they are headed for the same underclass status as the English-challenged immigrant children. A benevolent initiative to bring all children up to proper literacy-levels would energize the country. True, it might wreck the political plans of some, and spoil the economic plans of others who profit from a permanent, low-paid underclass. But (as we used to say in the old neighborhood) they’ll have to get over it. Of all possible waste, the waste of human capital is the worst. It’s intolerable.

The other prong of the new literacy movement would be musical. This might puzzle some. Who would care whether people are “musically literate” or not? Besides, what does it mean? In my lexicon, “music-literacy” means the same as literacy with language – that one can read, understand, and apply the notation of music. A person “literate” in music knows how music translates from printed notation to sound. He can sing a song as he reads its printed copy.

This skill – which seems daunting to moderns because it is seldom taught anymore – was once in the “toolkit” of most educated people. Part of my curriculum in the fifth grade was to learn and understand musical notation. Every student was expected to master the notation and use it in actual singing from a songbook. This was quite independent of whether one possessed actual singing talent – just as all students learned to play various sports in physical education class, whether or not they had any real athletic talent. Ditto for math, science, etc.

School was about teaching important skills to all students – not about determining who should get particular instruction because he or she appeared to have talent in certain areas. Naturally, the latter would be considered absurd if it were advocated generally in education. Yet it is clearly operative in music and the arts. Only children who seem to have musical talent actually receive specific instruction that enables music-literacy. The rest get little or none, unless their parents fund private musical education for them.

I recently heard former Arkansas Governor (and presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee speak to a group of Virginia high school students about the “need” for artistic and musical instruction in schools. I can’t reproduce his exact comments, but I was impressed with his strong advocacy – as a musician, himself – of such education. He called it “foundational” for creative work in myriad fields of endeavor – including science and technology – across our entire culture. Although his concept was amply validated in my own life, I have to admit that I have never thought of it in terms of Mr. Huckabee’s broader vision. His forceful, reasoned advocacy had the ring of truth.

Thus, learning musical skills isn’t merely an “ornament” but a critical element in our children’s education. That we have lost our grip on it shows up in quirky places, like at a ballgame where “singing” the national anthem is just an amorphous drone; and in churches, where hymnbooks and other printed music-copy have disappeared because people can no longer read music (or are believed unable to do so by church leaders). Listen to an impromptu chorus of “Happy Birthday” at the office, with everyone singing in a different key. It's pathetic.

All these are indicators. We don’t need to teach everyone how to sing Happy Birthday. We need to start teaching the skills of music-literacy again. When we have done it, those indicators will follow.

This great, two-pronged literacy initiative is waiting to be embraced by Americans of faith and social conscience. I believe its time has come. Will churches again be at its forefront, as they were in the nineteenth century? I hope so.