Progress, literally

We’ve come a long way since the cave life of Victorian obscurantism, so long live progress.

I don’t have enough black paint handy to draw a realistic picture of a 19th century Britain ruled by an elite lording it over the downtrodden. Workhouses, penury, little urchins toiling as either coal miners or pickpockets and exploited by slumlords in either case.

Oh well, I know I can’t compete with Dickens. I have neither his talent nor his flaming social conscience. But I do have something he didn’t have: the benefit of hindsight and a few telling statistics, specifically in the area of education.

One such datum says that in 1900 Britain could boast a literacy rate of 97.2 per cent. And please remember that in that dark age education was available only to the chosen few. Or so says received wisdom. Oppressed children had to leave school early to make a head start in their careers as coal miners or pickpockets.

Two world wars later progress dawned on Britain. Schools became comprehensive and, until age 16, compulsory. And what do you know, the current literacy level is 87 per cent – exactly 10 per cent lower than in the days of wholesale oppression and elitism.

This is to say that nine million Britons, most, one suspects, young beneficiaries of our comprehensive and compulsory education, are functionally illiterate. (A note to my French friends: don’t feel smug about this. The illiteracy rate in France is even higher.)

This is the kind of tunnel at the end of which no light will shine in any foreseeable future. For 19 per cent of English children between five and eight have not a single book at home. When pressed, their parents explain that books are too expensive, and I can testify from my own woeful experience that they are right.

However, not all books are necessarily bought. Some come down from one generation to the next. Some others are picked up at free public libraries. The first one opened in 1857, also in the oppressive reign of Queen Victoria. Since then they spread like mushrooms after an August rain – but no longer.

In fact, over the past 10 years a fifth of them have closed, which raises the chicken and egg question. Do half of our children hardly ever read outside school because libraries are closing or are they closing because people ignore them?

You don’t need me to tell you that this situation betokens a cultural catastrophe. But that’s not the only kind.

A child growing up in a low literacy area has a life expectancy some 26 years lower than one growing up in, say, a university town. And the life of an illiterate child will be not only shorter but also poorer.

Back in 1900 Britain was heavily industrialised, and industry didn’t run on mainframe computers, automated assembly lines and microprocessors. Hence there was much demand for the kind of labour that didn’t need high levels of literacy.

By contrast, the employment prospects of an illiterate youngster are bleak in today’s post-industrial economy. Whatever jobs are available can’t match the level of handouts generously offered by HM Exchequer as a direct result of widespread illiteracy, at a cost of £37 billion a year.

Some will be tempted to put this calamity down to our multicultural society proudly enforcing the kind of ethnic diversity that didn’t exist in Victorian times. Yet most ethnic groups show a great improvement in school performance. There are only two exceptions: boys of black Caribbean and white working-class backgrounds.

When we talk about education these days, we don’t mean proficiency in languages, living and dead, an easy command of involved philosophical and theological concepts or knowledge of differential calculus. At issue here is the ability to read elementary English texts and add up simple numbers.

Failure to educate children to even such a basic standard has all sorts of deadly consequences, some of which go beyond life expectancy and economic success. For rampant illiteracy leads to democracy of universal suffrage being severely compromised or even downright inoperative.

From Plato and Aristotle onwards, serious thinkers on such matters have been pointing out that an enlightened electorate is a sine qua non of successful democratic governance. That’s why in the past an inability to read and write disqualified people from voting in many Western democracies (such as several American states in my youth). No longer.

How can an illiterate person choose among numerous campaign promises on offer? I don’t know, you tell me. Lee, what’s wrong with a high inflation rate? Or with high taxation, Gavin? Should the House of Lords become an elected chamber, Trish? Oh well, hard luck – for all of us.

Nor is it just black and working-class boys. University-educated grown-ups who write about the plight of the downtrodden masses in our broadsheets do so with the kind of solecisms that wouldn’t have let them within swearing distance of Victorian papers.

In those days basic literacy was an insufficient requirement for journalists, partly because there was nothing special about that accomplishment in a country where practically everyone could read and write. Elegance of style, precision of metaphor, depth of analysis, sterling erudition all had to figure on a columnist’s CV.

These days I can hardly read an article, especially by a young hack, that doesn’t make me cringe at every other paragraph. Many locutions are as grating as the sound of two pieces of glass rubbed together.

I often cite examples of especially awful usages, with one or another attracting my jaundiced attention at different times. My current bugbear is the structure ‘to be sat’, as in “Last night I was sat next to an MP at dinner”.

Any Victorian writer would have known to shun the passive voice unless it was unavoidable. English is a dynamic language propelled by strong, active verbs (this sentence is an example of an unavoidable passive construction). So what’s wrong with ‘I sat’, ‘I was sitting’ or, ‘I was seated?’ Out of which fetid rubbish bin do they pull ‘I was sat’ and, increasingly, ‘I was stood’?

This is no trivial matter for it goes beyond whole herds of hacks suffering from a bad case of tin ear. This aesthetic and educational problem springs from ideologised contempt for aesthetics and education – ugly is the new beautiful for being easily accessible to all classes, ages and races.

Hence a broadsheet columnist writing “I was sat” is as virulent a symptom of cultural malaise as is a working-class teenager who can’t read a primer. They sit (are sat?) on different tiers of the pyramid, but the whole structure is sinking deeper and deeper into the ground.

So let’s end on my lapidary phrase: that’s progress for you.

2 thoughts on “Progress, literally”

  1. “A child growing up in a low literacy area has a life expectancy some 26 years lower than one growing up in, say, a university town.”

    Looking at some of the students I can’t help feeling that they might have depressed the literacy levels in their temporarily adopted town.

    And I have to warn readers that moving to Luton or Salford will do little for your longevity.

  2. Every now and then they post on the Internet a test that would have been given to a student from say West Virginia one-hundred years ago or more as a must pass to graduate grammar school.

    I venture that most college graduates today could not pass such a test.

    Literacy not seen as essential anymore? Comprehension of what you read even less essential?

    American schools and teachers really no so bad. Rather bad students. Don’t care.

    Harsh on my part to a large extent probably true.

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