Beheaded by the electronic revolution

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Abraham Lincoln's fellow congressmen dismissed him disparagingly as a "bookworm" when he first arrived in Washington. The way things are going nowadays, that is the kind of epithet many parents would be overjoyed to hear applied to their children. Reading, the icon and household god of every classroom, no longer seems to face the world secure within the bounds of its curricular hegemony.

You could get the impression that it is starting to feel the wall against its back. The spoor knows no barriers. The BBC, ever finely tuned for the faintest shift of cultural tectonic plates, has dropped Jackanory, suggesting that book-based story-telling is of limited interest to children.

Much closer to home, the discovery that in our modest corner of the vineyard 10 per cent of children in Glasgow's Easterhouse district and 85 per cent of eight-year-olds in some Edinburgh schools were unable to read competently caused reactions not far short of clinical hysteria. No school can deny there is ample scope for improvement in every part of its daily darg, and in the well known tradition of donning the burden of self-recrimination reappraisals ranging from agonising to agonised have been undertaken.

The positive results of direct intervention, particularly in Edinburgh, are more interesting. They showed that literacy levels, with a push and a shove, can be raised.

Exactly what underlies these reports of declining reading performance has puzzled me since I read them. I do not believe there is a drastic decline in the intelligence levels of children in areas of deprivation, nor do I believe that exhaustion has overtaken the dedicated teachers who see the acquisition of pupil literacy in almost Holy Grail terms. I do think, though, that something is out of kilter. Slowly and quite insidiously over the past few years reading has come to mean less and less to more and more. A substantial minority of children have developed a kind of accidie in their willingness to learn to read, expressing this in being content to get the mechanics together, mainly because of teacher pressure, and letting the rest look after itself.

Embedded in this, too, is the vital factor that initial parental interest and enthusiasm don't take long to wither on the vine, regardless of how many times teachers tell them that something is missing from childhood if they don't read with their children because they don't have time for it. Even the incentives of paired reading pall after a certain stage.

I wonder just exactly how much recreational read-ing goes on outside school hours at upper primary levels. Anecdotal small-scale research aimed at this was not heartening, for in some cases reading outwith the school context seemed to be viewed as elevated hobbyism.

I have my own reservations too about the cultural horizons from which my intuitive fears for reading are riding. We only appreciate the extent to which we have been living in the age of the printed word now that it is coming to an end, consigned to the shelves of history by the electronic revolution, television in particular. The point has been made constantly that reading success requires intellectual stringency and personal application to decode the symbols and follow the arguments. It is about thinking.

Television is not about engagement of that kind. It is about images. It is fast, frenetic and flash. And if it is boring, a thumb-down on the remote control sorts that out, sapping on to the next set of images, something you can't do with a book. Everyman has become his own emperor, and the games are on in your living room 24 hours a day.

If we seriously want to reverse this process, if we want to catch our readers with a net rather than with a line, as we are doing now, then the serious application of time, money and teachers to this end is essential. If we don't, we run the risk of letting whole generations go down the tube.


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