We ignore written culture at our peril

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Communication is at the heart of what it means to be human; our civilisation depends on it. At the core is our written culture and the ability to use language to transmit ideas from across generations.

Even in the 21st century, when our senses have been saturated by the latest multi-media, the written word remains the kernel for effective communication.

Historically, writing has played a central role in education as an essential prerequisite to functioning successfully in a modern economy. It is partly for this reason that, until relatively recently, considerable time has been spent on it by schools.

However, despite the importance of ensuring all children can access and use language effectively, two major factors have distracted schools from vigorously pursuing this objective.

First, the pressure for schools to engage with an avalanche of demands - new subjects, social issues and methodologies - has led to the contraction in time for reading and writing.

Second, we live in an increasingly visual culture where movies, computers and the internet have led to the erroneous belief that the written word is mundane and passe.

It would be a mistake to think the visual culture is the enemy. But it would be fatuous to deny that the visual is much more accessible. For an increasing number of young people, reared on a substantial visual diet both in and out of school, reading and writing is becoming inaccessible and devoid of pleasure.

The written culture is being squeezed in schools which, often only too aware that many pupils are struggling with writing, have dramatically reduced its role. Unfortunately, this has had a detrimental impact.

Marginalising the written culture has further weakened the competence, and diluted the enthusiasm, of a growing group of pupils to engage with what they perceive as a demanding medium.

This creates a downward spiral in which pupils become further deskilled and alienated from reading and writing.

Since the withering of the written culture in schools has not been planned, but gradual and insidious, they have been slow to diagnose the problem. They are, however, conscious of how it manifests in the growing antipathy and disillusionment of pupils, and the decline in their ability to demonstrate competence using the written culture.

There are, of course, those who see the demise of writing as not only inevitable but desirable. This is a catastrophic error of judgment. In the 21st century, the demand for those who can communicate competently in many fields, with confidence and clarity, will be greater than ever before.

Active, effective citizens will need to be highly literate. However, ensuring young people are adequately prepared and not disadvantaged to compete in a global economy depends critically on creating schools which are citadels of the written word. Of equal importance is the need to ensure they have the confidence and skill to access language to enrich their existence.

In conclusion, we need to reverse the marginalisation of the written culture in schools, not for any nostalgic hankering after a golden past, or even to raise attainment, but rather to ensure that we adequately stimulate young people for their futures, whether that takes the form of Heisenberg, Harry Potter or Hamlet.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High.

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