Boyd Tonkin: Scenes from a British war on knowledge

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You don't, while browsing in a literary magazine, expect to have your heart broken. I always enjoy The Reader (www.thereader.org.uk), which stems from the terrific work done by teachers of literature to adults at Liverpool University. They aim high and refuse to condescend, seeking to put "great books in the hands of people who need them". But this week in The Reader I came across "Scenes from a PGCE" by Gabriella Gruder-Poni. She explains what happened when – as a trainee English teacher in a comprehensive school - she tried to widen the horizons of students written off as failures by the bulk of her colleagues. Now I, like you, have read too many reactionary rants and glib laments over dumbing-down in class. I know the privileged interests such rhetoric often serves.

But this is a quite devastating indictment of a system staffed by teachers "indifferent to talent", who not only asked for almost nothing from pupils. They buttressed this betrayal with a cult of celebrity and gadgetry, and a junk "theory" that clothed an abject surrender with the pseudo-egalitarian claptrap that abandons all kids in just the spot where they began. "Everywhere I encountered the same poisonous combination of classism and anti-intellectualism," Ms Gruder-Poni writes. "Schools in the late 19th-century were the catalyst for social mobility, but the schools in which I worked were devoted to nothing so much as social stasis."

To discuss extracts from All Quiet on the Western Front was "not acceptable". A boy from Sudan wanted to talk about Nelson Mandela in a "biography" unit; the teacher's own presentation was on Sean Connery. When a Frankenstein module prompted one girl to read Mary Shelley's novel (definitely not on the syllabus) rather than just watch the video, the teacher said "You know Carla – always does more than she has to". Convinced that "the students' origin was their destiny", these non-educators slapped down any hint of curiosity that promised enlightenment to youngsters languishing in "a twilight zone between literacy and illiteracy".

Beware lazy generalisations. A thousand schools could tell a happier story than this quiet tragedy of zero expectations. But anyone who denies that this picture captures the toxic wasteland of part of our educational scenery has firmly closed their eyes.

Penguin this week re-issues the classic study that in 1957 both sounded the alarm and saw the future of a country where a self-interested, big-money populism almost always wins the decisive battles. Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy (Penguin Modern Classics, £10.99) in 1957. His moving and magisterial study of the old working-class culture and the whirlwind of commercial exploitation that was starting to knock the stuffing out of it has gained in valency with every passing year. In fact, The Uses of Literacy reads more relevantly now than in did in the intervening, optimistic decades, when "reality TV" probably just meant a kitchen-sink play from the likes of Ken Loach.

The reason is straightforward. The good influence of Hoggart and his peers in education at all levels, in the BBC, in arts administration and the intelligent press meant that the "corrupt brightness, improper appeals and moral evasions" of the new "classness" - but plutocratic - media had strong opposition for a while. But for how much longer?

We await a new government even more indebted to the Murdochs (and their rivals) than the last. Pseudo-radical theorists still command the universities. This pincer assault on cultural aspiration – led from the right flank by billionaire-populist media barons, from the left by "anti-elitist" careerists in education and broadcasting – is one of the deepest self-inflicted wounds to have harmed this country in the postwar era. How many more inquisitive kids will be told this week that their fate is to fill the pockets of the super-rich by the worship of celebrity: that they must love Big Brother?

P.S.It has become a tradition for Man Booker chairs to deliver a state-of-the union speech about the health of fiction before they name the year's lucky winner. On Tuesday at the Guildhall, a combative James Naughtie had some prime targets in his sights. He went on the offensive against the "sloppy editing" that had given the judging panel grief, and lambasted the pile-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap model of publishing and bookselling that has starved readers of real choice in so many areas. "Marketing strategies become the spinal cord of the operation," he warned, while "the authors become a mere limb to be lopped off" when the cash ceases to flow. Only once did we hear a defensive note. On complaints that the prize never honours science fiction, Naughtie pleaded that "we can't judge what isn't entered." But the judges can call books in.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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