Comment: Blair's books pay homage to a false god

At the start of the Year of Reading, Michael McMahon says literacy is for freedom, not the slavery of work
"I DON'T want to read this, Sir. It's shit." Fifteen-year-old Daniel's response to being asked to look at a speech from Macbeth suggested to me that he had possibly not read, learnt, marked or inwardly digested that it was day one of our national Year of Reading. In the Taiwan our leaders admire it might be the Year of the Tiger, but in Abecedarian Albion it is the Year of the Book. Anyone who has recently switched on a wireless or glanced at a serious newspaper knows it, and knows exactly how we are expected to react. Just - as Baroness Thatcher said on an earlier occasion of national moment - rejoice.

Why is it, then, that on hearing the news I did not immediately throw my metaphorical mortar-board into the air? After all, I am an English teacher. Surely I should be even happier than most at the promise of this Great Leap Forward in mass literacy. But I teach at the sharp end of the comprehensive system. I'm entitled to be cynical. Giving a pounds 1,000 book token to each school, as our government did last week, buys not just some very nice books, but some very nice headlines, too; and it buys them cheaply. It would cost many times that sum to fund the extra staffing that would make a real difference. Once again, the Government has shown itself quicker to reach for the catch-phrase than the cash box when it runs up against any of the expensive problems that it wants to be seen to address.

Yet let's give it the benefit of the doubt this time. If a publicity campaign in which pop stars and football superheroes pose with toddlers on their knees and books in their hands encourages children to read, then we should endure it with good grace - even more so if the photos show the books being held the right way up. However mixed the Government's motives might be in launching this initiative, only a churl would doubt that it has a genuine wish that our children should be more literate.

It's just that not all of us agree on what literacy is, or what it is for - any more than we agree upon what education is, or why we subject our children to it. The Government's position on both is clear, and is not up for debate. You need to be literate to have access to education; you need to be educated to have access to work. The very existence of a Department for Education and Employment is a political statement in itself: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It sounds like good common sense until you look more closely, and you realise that the greater concept has been defined, and demeaned, by the lesser.

True literacy is not just reading and writing. Coping with a pitifully abridged and skeletal school edition of A Christmas Carol is an exercise in literacy not much higher than browsing a Dixons catalogue; but if you can do either, you can engage with contemporary education (and, indeed, contemplate most of the rewards it promises). A 16-year-old with a reading age of nine can read the Sun, and learn how to respond to dialogue boxes on a computer screen; but let's not call him literate.

The time he spends at school might not be wasted, but let's not call it education. It is training, and training for employment.

True education is not just preparation for work. It liberates the mind, for the enrichment of society. Within the bounds of courtesy, it does not teach people to obey - it teaches them to question. True education is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for its own sake, celebrating originality as much as diversity. Anything less like the market-driven, hi-tech, production-line "knowledge economy" of the "educational" vision of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson or David Blunkett is hard to imagine.

Which is why the Government has taken out a de facto copyright on the words "education" and "literacy", just as its highly favoured (and now highly paid) Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, has made his own name inseparable from the word "standards". They are like 18th-century sailors protecting themselves from the cat o' nine tails by having a crucifix tattooed on their backs. The message to the man with the whip is simple: flog me, flog your Saviour. It's about time we told our politicians that they are sheltering behind hollow images of false gods. They deserve a good whipping.

But perhaps we should spare them a few lashes. After all, a Year of Reading is not a bad thing in itself. No doubt it will have some successes in its own terms; and statistics - including the circulation figures of the less demanding tabloids, perhaps - will be produced to prove that we are moving towards the kind of mass "literacy" that our leaders want.

Yet if at least some young people discover a love of reading for its own sake, we will all have cause to be grateful that there was a Year of the Book. For the lesson they will have learnt is that there is more to life than the world of slavish work for which our Government thought it was preparing them.