Language, truth and the dangers of mass education

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Celebrity illiteracy is now official. The public discovered this great new English deficiency last week, when the publishers of a concise dictionary ran a publicity stunt. Members of a panel of ill-assorted glitterati, including Martin Amis and Vanessa Feltz, denounced top people for language- abuse - the only kind of perversion which can still be condemned with impunity. Tony Blair was blamed for banality and evasiveness, Zoe Ball bludgeoned for blather, John Prescott dunned for drivel. These were unsurprising findings. Media-speak always drifts into idiocy. Meaningful utterance has to be avoided in case someone is offended. Obfuscation gives repellent policies electoral appeal. The mike is merciless: only split-seconds separate soundbites from Colemanballs. If you talk a lot, you talk a lot of nonsense. In the consumer society, language is like every other commodity: cheapened by glut.

More worrying than the survey's routine judgements was the evidence of the judges' incompetence. They droned on pedantically about split infinitives, politically correct circumlocutions and the sanctity of adjectives. They corruptly targeted their own political pet aversions. Apart from the verbally incontinent Chris Evans, all the most widely criticised offenders were politicians.

Fussing about linguistic purity is not just an innocent form of silliness: it is snobbish and in its extreme forms can be chauvinistic and even racist. Language is a bright weapon to be kept sharp and wielded with flair: this does not mean that everyone's armoury must be identically regulated. On the contrary, all should develop their own argot. That is how language gets enriched. The news about celebrity illiteracy in England broke on the day Jacques Chirac claimed that the European Charter on Minority Languages would "imperil national unity". Linguistic fetishism was formerly, in English eyes, a French vice. Now it is becoming an English obsession, too.

The fuss is irrational but not inexplicable. Whereas M Chirac is troubled by pollutants of Frenchness - ethnic minorities and secessionist politicians - the English language-police worry, equally characteristically, about national efficiency. Concern over celebrity illiteracy is related to the growing anxiety among the English that theirs is an ill-educated nation, incapable of "competing" with better-schooled neighbours in a sophisticated world-workplace. Last week the Government announced two typical forms of over-reaction. "Learning goals" are to be specified for three to five- year-olds and a "university equivalent of the General Medical Council" is to enforce "new national standards for teaching". So education is to be crushed into uniformity from first to last. Nursery schools are to provide the level of "educational challenge which might reasonably be expected from a good home": in other words, bourgeois standards are to be imposed on all children. To join the new institute, academics "will have to submit a portfolio of evidence to prove their ability to teach to required standards": in other words, conform to government norms or be excluded from the establishment. Before these proposals steamroller their way into statute, we should recall some basic truths about what it means to be educated.

First, regulation is the enemy of education. Education is the diversification of experience and every act of standardisation kills a creative opportunity. Tests and exams are like the sabbath that was made for man: they should not be mistaken for the aims of education, nor for a true test of what a curriculum is worth, nor of what a relationship between teacher and pupil has achieved. Examination syllabuses are limiting because they are necessarily selective. It is therefore bad for pupils and teachers to spend a long time on them. Education in this country is being sacrificed to rigid demands. Teachers' independence is stultified by intruded tasks. Original thought is penalised by "marking schemes" which require children to reproduce centrally predicted answers. Pupils' vision is cramped by a focus on arbitrary targets. Their values are warped by the notion that good exam results will make them well educated, whereas really it is the other way round: well-educated candidates take exams in their stride.

Second, education should nourish and be nourished in freedom. Teaching and learning are like religious conversion: they have to come from the heart and cannot be procured by coercion. Education is for the enlargement of sensibilities, the cultivation of sympathies, the sharpening of perceptions, the enhancement of life and preparation for death - not for merely economic enrichment. Education is for humanity, not for the national interest or the convenience of any particular kind of society. We abuse our power over the young to engineer society and to sanctify those modern demigods, health and safety. We try to safeguard social peace by inculcating tendentious values: moral indifference and "lifestyle-tolerance". We misemploy schools and universities to keep children off the streets and youth out of the job market. All this is probably inevitable, but it is not education. True education is incompatible with conformism. Its purpose, as Harold Macmillan once said, is to help you "tell when a man is talking rot". It hones reason, whets criticism. This makes it inherently, necessarily subversive. We shall be better off with fellow-citizens who challenge received wisdom and re-think entrenched opinions than with a society of intellectual clones.

Universal compulsory education may be necessary, but it is a necessary evil. It has turned millions of potentially intelligent people into readers of the Sun. The products of compulsory schooling are the fodder of the spin-doctors and publicity wizards. Instead of making people critical, it makes them manipulable. If we abolished it, we should have a worse workforce but a better world.

AN Wilson returns next week.