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

Share
Related Topics
"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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle