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WHATEVER HAPPENED to the WRITTEN WORD?
by THOMAS C. WARDEN
Member, Masonic Education Committee Grand Lodge, A.F. &
A.M. of Missouri.
Brother Warden delivered this timely speech at the
Midwest Conference on Masonic Education at Dearborn,
Michigan in May, 1978. It appeared as a feature article
in the Summer, 1978, Edition of The Freemason, official
publication of the Grand Lodge, A.F. & A.M. of Missouri.
We thank Brother Warden for Permitting its use as a
Short Talk Bulletin.
Scattered throughout the western plains of
the United States, from Wyoming's Bighorn
Mountains northward and into Saskatchewan,
Canada, are huge, elaborate patterns traced out
in stone. Some were built 5,000 years ago--
when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction--and others were laid out as recently
as 1,700 years ago.
Their origin and use was long a mystery. Of
such is the substance of legends . . . some of
which even attributed these stone patterns to
pre-Columbian members of the Masonic Lodge.
Evidence now suggests that these "medicine
wheels" (The National Geographic, "Mystery of the
Medicine Wheels," January, 1977.) --as they came to be
known--were a primitive but accurate means for marking
the summer solstice: the longest day.
Yet, in the recorded history of the American
Indian, in this century and the last, there is no
mention of astronomical uses ever having been
made of the skies.
From the time of Coronado to that of Lewis
and Clark, Indian history is devoid of an explanation for these stone formations. But they
assuredly exist, they predate recorded history,
and we know how they were used.
These rock formations are all relics of an
Indian culture and heritage long eclipsed and
forgotten because, quite simply, there is no
This, perhaps, is a forceful reminder that
learning, without the benefit of written words,
is indeed a precarious, fragile and fleeting thing
. . . that in a few hundred years, knowledge
without the written word can be forever lost.
There is a more contemporary parallel to this
phenomenon, and it is found in the early days
Worshipful Brother Harry Carr, of the
Grand Lodge of England, in his eloquent essay,
"Six Hundred Years of Craft Ritual," outlines
the futility of tracing the early history of Freemasonry without adequate written records.
Brother Carr readily admits to the single flaw
in his lecture: namely, that he lacks the corroborating exhibit to seal his conclusions--the
verifiable, indelible written word.
He is 99 per cent certain as to Masonic origin,
but--like a lawyer going into court--he is
armed with circumstantial evidence. He does
not have that scrap of paper which would seal
Thus, early Masonic learning, not preserved
by the written word, has--like the Master's
word--been forever lost.
And this brings us to the task at hand for
those who profess interest in Masonic Education.
Our nation at this very moment is precariously close to becoming a nation of functional illiterates . . . people who have completed the educational requirements of our society but who
cannot read or write well enough to function
This not only strikes at the very heart of our
Democracy, but it poses a mind-boggling prob
lem for those involved in education . . . be it
public education or -- for our purposes --
How do we impart our traditions and history
--and yes, our ritual--to men who can see but
cannot understand, who perhaps can write but
Have no doubt about it, the destruction of
our language can already be heard in lodges
across the land. The sharp corners of ritual are
being rounded off. How often, for instance, do
you hear the word "Brethren" spoken "Broth-
This is just one small point, to be sure, but
perhaps the long-range effect of all this is to be
found in what we speak of in whispered words
--a decline in fraternal membership!
Are potential members "afraid" to climb the
steps of Freemasonry because of the barriers
imposed by language . . . barriers, I might
add, that are raised by illiteracy?
George Gallup, founder of the Gallup Poll,
and a former teacher, is one of those expressing
concern about the decline in reading and writing skills in the United States. He called the
literary level a "national disgrace" and predicted that the decline in verbal facility could
bring about a decline in the intellectual level of
Grim predictions like Gallup's are based on
concrete evidence. College entrance scores have
declined appreciably in the past half-dozen
years. Instructors increasingly deplore the
lower level of reading and writing skills in each
new crop of college freshmen.
In an attempt to raise students to a literate
level, English and journalism departments are
adding remedial courses in the basics: grammar,
punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, reading.
Gallup expresses doubt that "a generation
raised in front of television sets will be capable
of performing the intellectual feats of earlier
and more literate generations."
It is disquieting, Brethren, to comprehend
that in the United States the median age is 28.
Half of our people were born before 1950; the
other half were born after. In other words, half
are substantially pre-television, half are posttelevision.
Those of us in the pre-l950 generation are, in
varying degrees, readers. The post-1950 vintage
American is a viewer, a listener, and predominately a non-reader.
This carries profound implications for those
of us who labor in the vineyard of printed
words, who attempt to convince viewers and
listeners that the printed word yet has merit.
Perhaps I should depart from our theme long
enough to tell you that I am a printer by trade,
a newspaper journalist by profession, and a
Freemason by choice. You will detect a definite
bias for the printed word, and a deep concern
for the future of Freemasonry, in what I have
First let us look at some of the statistics, and
then consider their implications for the Masonic
Recent studies show that only 47 per cent of
America's 17-year-edge can read a traffic ticket.
In a few years, some of these youngsters will be
petitioning Masonic lodges for membership.
And a 1975 United States Department of
Education study revealed that more than 23
million adults are "functionally illiterate."
Some, no doubt, are already members of the
Back to public education, which Freemasonry wholeheartedly supports. We spend over
$1,500 a year per student . . . yet the system
does not teach him to read, write, or do
Our high school graduates, in addition to 12
years in class, have logged 15,000 hours watching television . . . more time than they have put
into anything other than sleeping. They have
seen 250,000 commercials and 18,000 killings,
most in living color.
In Missouri last year, more than 80 per cent
of the first students to take all of the state's new
basic skills test failed to pass at least one of the
three test segments. State officials have not
determined the passing score for the test, but 70
per cent has been frequently mentioned as a
Based on that, 83 per cent of the 175 eighthgraders taking the test at one school failed to
pass at least one of the three test segments.
Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, U.S. Commissioner of
Education and a former university professor
and administrator, said it best: "The safest
thing one can say about a college diploma today
is not that it signifies educational achievement,
but rather that its holder probably has been
around the campus for about four years. Beyond that, everything is uncertain."
This is in full agreement with a 14-year
national decline in scores on the Scholastic
Aptitude Test (SAT). Average scores in the
verbal sections have gone down 49 points. Dr.
William Kottmeyer, a prominent St. Louis educator and author-in-residence at McGraw-Hill,
Inc., sounded an even more serious note by calling the falling SAT scores "an ominous
The only way a democracy can exist, he
warned, "is if you have free access to information . . . (for) the ability to take information
from the printed page is the tool of freedom."
This is what we face, Brethren: an increase in
illiteracy, a decrease in respect for and use of
the printed word. If you can believe what some
of these respected individuals say, even our
democracy stands in jeopardy.
What has happened to the word? Need we, as
Masonic educators, be concerned if reading and
writing skills decline?
I should hope that a few persuasive voices
will say "yes"!
Right Worshipful Brother Stanton T. Brown,
Grand Lecturer of the Grand Lodge, A.F. &
A.M. of Missouri, had this to say about ritual
and how it must resist attempts to chip away at
its perfectional usage:
"Many ritual-thinkers within Freemasonry
have sought to modernize its formal structure
and language to conform to today's society.
Their work poses one question: Should Freemasonry be made over in the image of today's
society or would today's society be the better if
it were to re-cast itself in the mold used successfully by Freemasonry for more than 250 un-
What my Brother from Missouri is saying to
ritualists holds true for educators also. For he
has, in my view, answered his own question:
Society would be substantially more secure if it
could recast itself in the mold used successfully
by Freemasons for two and one half centuries.
Ritual has been the fabric of Freemasonry
throughout these two and a half centuries; the
written word is the sinew--the thread--that
has held it together.
If Freemasonry comes apart at the seams, it
will be because the written word has disinte-
grated. And the written word, Brethren, is disintegrating.
The trend can be turned around; it will not be
Change must be effected in the public school
system that we as Freemasons hold so dear. It
thus behooves all of Freemasonry not to yield
another iota in the disintegration and destruction of the English language, and this can be
done by individual and collective efforts to upgrade educational standards as educator stand-
We hold this power of change in the ballots
we cast at school elections and in the persuasive
voices heard at parent-teacher organization
meetings. As citizens, we must elect people who
subscribe to the theory that reading and writing
shall once again be among the supportive pillars
of an education, and we must endorse curricu-
lums and programs designed to accomplish that
Change must also be effected within the
boundaries of our Fraternity. And that is where
we, as Masonic educators, face a monumental
Problems plaguing the ritualists are vexing
for educators as well. Brother Brown tells me
that the ritual in Missouri contains some 22,000
words. And this poses another question: Should
the ritualists re-write our ceremonies to please a
less literate generation so they can comprehend
what those 22,000 words mean? Hopefully, not!
Or should we, as Masonic educators, redouble our efforts with initiates so they will be
better prepared to travel the road that awaits
them in the temple? Hopefully, yes.
It is in this particular regard that due caution
is needed. The audio-visual trend in schools has
snowballed to the point that many students
have permanently dilated pupils as a result of
spending too much time watching slides and
Masonic ritual relies upon mouth to ear, as
does Masonic education to some extent. But the
preponderance of our responsibility -- our
Masonic tradition, heritage, history--is essentially and necessarily dependent upon the written word. For the most vivid memory pales by
comparison to the faintest ink on a printed
Our excursion down the celluloid trail of educational aids needs to be tempered with the realization that slides and films cannot ideally replace the knowledge that can be imparted
mouth to ear, and via the indelible, lasting
If this trend toward quick and easy leaning is
disquieting, so is a notable departure from the
power of brevity that we find all too frequently
among those of us entrusted with Masonic
Perhaps in our eagerness, we are also boring
and verbose. I have been to meetings of Masonic
educators that, frankly, left me weary and wondering . . . weary of meaningless, meandering
dialogue, and wondering how we have managed
lO attract members to our Fraternity, if indeed
we can lay claim to that accomplishment.
Brother Samuel Clemens, the world knows
him as Mark Twain, said it best: "Few sinners
are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon."
If we must contend with less literate initiates
as a result of an educational system gone astray,
must we also frighten them by talking too much
and too long about things irrelevant and of
peripheral significance to the goal of preparing
them for the ritual, and afterwards, of continuing their enlightment?
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, The Lord's
Prayer, and the Twenty-Third Psalm are three
of the great literary treasures venerated by mankind. And not one of them is as long as 300
Never have the powers of brevity been so
demonstratively illustrated as in these classics
of word construction. So much is said with so
If we can find moral messages in the working
tools of an Entered Apprentice; in the pillars,
the globes, the winding stairway of a Fellowcraft; in the hour glass, the scythe, and the allseeing eye of the Master Mason, I would hope
that we might also perceive warnings from the
destruction of the written and printed word,
from the synthetic lure of quick and easy knowledge proffered by photographic imagery, from
the deception that brevity has no power, no
place in the educational process.
Masonic education faces many challenges,
but the rising level of illiteracy, undeniably, is
the most complex, the most serious of them all.
Reading, writing and literary understanding are
at the very heart of our fraternal existence.
And it is beyond comprehension that one day
hence, a distant generation will wonder about
the strange patterns--the square and compass
--that they find on the cornerstones of an
ancient civilization's ruins.
Will Freemasonry, like the medicine wheel of
the early Plains Indians, become a relic of a culture long eclipsed and forgotten, simply
because no written record exists? The printed
word will cease to exist in just a few generations
"Preposterous!" you say. Is it? The same
thing almost happened to Freemasonry 600
years ago, though the ritual survived when
written records did not. But our early history
was irrevocably lost.
I am reminded of the words written by the
Greek tragic poet Aeschylus who--2,000 years
ago--intoned, "So in a Libyan fable it is told,
that once an eagle, stricken with a dart, said,
when he saw the fashion of the shaft, 'With our
own feathers, not others' hands, are we now
smitten' . "
Brethren, I suggest that it is not cowans and
eavesdroppers that threaten from without; we
threaten ourselves when we condone the
destruction of the written word. By our own inaction, not by others' failings, are we being
Dash 30 dash, -30-, is a newsman's indenture
for the end of a news story. I have spoken for
almost 30 minutes and thus it is fitting that I
stop. While my words may end here, I hope my
thoughts will tease you into reappraisal and
renewal of Masonic education's ways and
means and goals, for the betterment of the
Fraternity both you and I hold so dear.