We should never accept second best on behalf of other people, argues Ferdinand Mount
The traditional view of the reading public before our own century is that it was very limited, mostly confined to the better-off sections of the community and predominantly male. The poor, we were told, and women of all classes had to wait for the coming of mass education towards the end of the nineteenth century before they could expect to be taught to read and write.
Now if it is really true that until very recent times the vast majority of people could neither read nor write, then it follows that the task of teachers over the past century must have been colossal and the achievement of state education must compel our awed admiration.
But are all those assumptions true? Scholars are now finding more evidence of literacy spreading way down the social scale.
In my parish of St Mary, Islington, an annual register of the poor children until they were apprenticed out was kept. Three volumes have survived from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If a child on the register could read, "r" was put against his or her name. Of nearly 500 children aged five or over between 1767 and 1810, 75 per cent of both boys and girls merited an "r".
But by the time of the Forster Education Act of 1870, 80 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women were already writing their names in the marriage register, and as writing has always been a significantly less common accomplishment than reading, it is a reasonable estimate that some 90 per cent of both men and women could read before the introduction of state education.
My purpose here is certainly not to attack the idea of state education. What I want to point out is that, in its anxiety to justify its ever-growing activities, the State began to believe its own propaganda and to treat "the masses" as not only under educated but as very nearly ineducable. Every time the educational system is made broader to take in more young people, it is made correspondingly shallower, reducing both the quantity and complexity of what is taught.
Why have so many in the educational world and beyond lowered their sights? I think the reason is depressingly simple.
Dumbing down, I believe, is a kind of cock-eyed homage to democracy, and from that misunderstanding come all the fallacies with which we are so familiar: child-centred methods in primary schools, softer options in secondary schools and universities, the use of calculators in exams, the extended range of grades, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to fail. Teenagers all too often catch onto the scams and develop a cynical attitude to these well-meaning adjustments.
At the end of the day, practicality does break in at last in the shape of disappointed parents and dissatisfied employers. And political pressure is brought to bear to restore standards, under both this Government and the last one.
At least in education, eventually (though it has taken 20 years) parents do kick up a fuss and something happens - because it is the parents who pay the taxes. Outside in radio and television, publishing, magazines, newspapers and the performing arts the countervailing pressures are far weaker. If you look through the week's schedules for TV channels and see only two programmes that would tax a canary, what can you do? Another week's diet of pap has been pumped out.
I am and always have been very keen on vulgarity. Anyone who shies away from vulgarity can't fully enjoy Chaucer or Shakespeare. British television has been responsible for some of the greatest comedy of the twentieth century: Porridge, Dad's Army, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Morecambe and Wise, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder.
I don't want to stop vulgarity. Popular culture is vulgar, always has been. I am complaining about the craven surrender of those who should be looking after high culture: the dread of seeming elitist which leads opera producers to vulgarise the most sublime operas, by dressing the Queen of the Night to look like Lady Thatcher, or putting the Rhinemaidens on skateboards All these things - and many more like them - seem to me to add up to a total misunderstanding of the democratic principle. Or rather two democratic principles are being confused.
The first is that, in a democracy, the groundrules must be set by the vote of the majority. The second is that, within these ground rules, the preferences of all individuals and groups must be respected as long as they do not begin to infringe upon the preferences of others. Democracy does not entail dragging everything down to the lowest common denominator.
Those two principles must not be confounded, in such a way that the preferences of the majority come to be imposed upon everyone. And that really is the danger: not of vulgarity or even of violence dominating our public culture, but of an undemanding, third-rate, same-tasting, substandard sort of society.
You may say that I make too much fuss. It isn't the end of the world if our standards slip a bit and we don't ask too much of peoplel, and go on making allowances for those who haven't had our advantages. Well, you may be right, but, in concluding, I would just like to point to some ominous evidence just emerging in the United States.
I quote from a book to be published by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, of Harvard University. They describe two dramatic episodes of social change in the life of American blacks, one greatly encouraging, the other deeply depressing. First the good news.
The ascent of black Americans into the middle class since the war has been a remarkable though largely unsung story. In 1940, only 5 or 6 per cent were in middle-class occupations. By 1990, a third of American black men and over half of black women were in white-collar jobs. The number of black attorneys, for example, rose from 1,000 to 27,000 over that period.
As recently as 1960, only 20 per cent of blacks had completed four years or more of High School, as against 43 per cent of whites. In the mid-90s, the figures are 73 per cent, 15 per cent and 85 per cent respectively. Thus in a generally better-educated society, the gap between blacks and whites has closed dramatically.
So far, so good, much better than many American social commentators have been telling us. But the Thernstroms then go on to produce a batch of evidence which is a good deal more disquieting. If you look at the statistics compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, you will find that the difference in the attainments of black and white pupils has been widening again, after steadily narrowing over previous decades.
This seems to apply to all subjects, to science and mathematics no less than to reading and writing. The so-called "racial gap" in reading, for example, narrowed dramatically from six years in 1980, to 2.5 years in 1988, then widened again to 3.9 years by 1994.
Why this alarming turnaround? The Thernstroms examine some of the reasons usually given: poverty, the number of single-parent black families; but all these social drawbacks were well-established throughout that period when black educational attainments were improvings. So what can be the reason? The obvious answer is to look at what has been happening inside the schools.
It is notorious that American schools, particularly in the city slums, have been becoming more violent and disorderly places. What is less often described is the changes in the methods of teaching and examining which have accompanied and may have helped to cause that slide into disorder. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the educational reform movement managed to push students into a "New Basics" core curriculum which strengthened the courses and improved the performance of black students.
But what happened in the late 1980s and early l990s? All over the United States, school committees began to drop the tougher tests. The tests were too hard, it was said, the black failure rate would be higher than that of the whites, and this would humiliate and demoralise the black community.
As black children were coming close to match the achievements of white children, they were despaired of again and the whole system dumbed down to make life easier for them - which made life in practice a lot harder, because they were no longer stretched to the limit of their potential. Of course, the worsening exam results soon began to fulfil the expectation of the well-meaning dumbers-down.
Life begins to lose a little of its savour if everything is made easy. I would only suggest that we think of a literate society not just as one in which we have all managed to pass a once-for-all exam, rather like a swimming test, but rather as a society which likes to keep on stretching its capabilities and which finds in the conquest of difficulty not a burden but a satisfaction.
And if we really want to help the disadvantaged shake off their disadvantages, the worst thing we can do is to patronize them by making it easy, because in the long run that only makes it more difficult. We must never, never accept second best, especially not on behalf of other people.
Ferdinand Mount is Editor of The Times Literary Supplement. This is an edited version of his Annual Livery lecture, delivered to the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers on Monday.