Teachers will readily agree that literacy, together with numeracy, forms the legs on which every child’s education walks, runs or stumbles. There are a minority in the uber-progressive fringes who still believe the best means to an education is finger painting well into your teens, but mercifully they are an endangered species. Yet in spite of this agreement, our efforts to develop this critical skill in young children is rarely followed up by a similar determination aimed at teenagers.
I realised this about 15 years ago, when a friend who taught English at university published a popular and noticeably obese anthology of English literature because he knew his students rarely read any of the books he taught them in full.
All they wanted – trained by the school examination system – were extracts, just enough to pass the exam. So that’s what he and his colleague gave them. Our universities are not short of young people studying all kinds of degree subjects who can genuinely lay claim to an A* in GCSE English literature, but who have rarely read any of the set texts in full, and far more importantly, have little idea why that matters.
For someone like me, this is about as damning a condemnation of an education system as I can think of.
Functional literacy may be about coping with instructions from Ikea, managing communications with a bank or HMRC and trying to handle a divorce from the utility company who is busy fleecing you, but to be a genuinely literate adult requires a much more potent grasp of how language works and acts on us as free individuals. You need to know that when a reporter changes “slogan” into “pledge” they do so deliberately. That when someone uses the phrase “aggressive tax avoidance” as though it’s the lexical equivalent of “a nice cup of tea” they do so because they think you’re stupid and won’t notice the legal paradox.
Noticing language, what others do with it and why, is what it means to be literate. Having ears that prick up when anyone takes a word and tweaks it that little bit, or picks up an innocent looking phrase, excises a key word or two and substitutes something more…pointy, is a key feature of the literate adult.
Literate adults get annoyed when they hear a university professor on TV refer to criminals “recuperating” instead of “rehabilitating.” They object at lazy commentators who opt for “inappropriate” to describe behaviour they are totally ignorant about because they know, like all true gossips, that a vague hint is far more toxic than a concrete accusation. Ask yourself how many times in the past few weeks you must have witnessed this particularly insidious abuse of the English language – then ask yourself what its unseen effects on unseen others may have been.
Ideas and truths
So I am hugely cheered to read that some teachers know this too and are trying to do something about it. A raft of pressures from organisations outside of education – such as business groups – that real teachers will be far too weary and wary of for me to name here, have too often reduced the study of literature to a US-style, multiple-choice exercise in which all that matters is you regurgitate the agreed ideas.
The astounding opportunity that should be every child’s educational right: to read in order to discover ideas and truths for themselves, has been largely replaced by a politically motivated drive to utility.
This is Milton, famously defending freedom of speech In Areopagitica, spelling out to us all why more than merely functional literacy matters: "hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life."
In these feverish times, you won’t need my encouragement to nominate those whose lives are a burden to the earth. But what Milton knew is true of books is equally true of sentences, phrases and even single words – especially those spat out by privileged representatives and demagogues. There is nothing impressive about an interviewer who repeats the same question to a tight-lipped, thick-skinned politician again and again. The genuinely literate response is to challenge the words they use.
So I will patiently curl up on the sofa in front of the TV and butter my toast by the breakfast radio, in the sure hope that soon enough I will hear someone say with all the confidence that real literacy affords: “That’s not actually what you meant…was it? Because this is what I heard you just say.”
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue