We now know that in the 2007 PIRLS survey Britain has plummeted to 19th of 45 countries in primary reading standards (it was third in 2001); and in the still more recent OECD survey of 57 nations, our fifteen year olds are barely average in reading (we were seventh in 2000).


Somehow, one is too inclined to think of education as an event that occurs between a teacher, instructing, and a pupil, learning.  Like all such themes, this is subject to an infinitude of variations, including instructional methods, class sizes, curriculum resources and individualisation.  At all events, the result — if the lesson is one in literacy — is that children learn to read, write and perhaps spell.


It is increasingly apparent that this is wishful thinking.  It completely ignores the content of literacy and the cultural context in which such instruction takes place.  One might as well build sandcastles on a beach which is being approached by a tsunami after Krakatoa — or indeed describe a tea-party being assembled and conducted in a gale.


We are all familiar with instances of children, perhaps dyslexic, who have been taught against all the odds to read and actually do so with zest and enjoyment only a little diminished; conversely, there are children who have struggled up the adverse gradient of their reading difficulty, acquiring in painstaking and laboured fashion the necessary techniques, who refuse ultimately to pick up a book unless at gunpoint. In other words, facility with this set of techniques to be learned, ultimate success and the deployment of prowess are all dissociable. It is with the latter that we need to concern ourselves now.


What is going on outside of the classroom is quite as important as what is going on inside it.  After they leave the bosom of their family, children are subject to the overwhelming influence of their peer group.  Nowadays this means the pervasive, roaring vortex of popular culture.  Specifically it means the world-wide electronic mass media.  Unless children are actually reared on Lindisfarne, and boarding schools may be more protective than day schools from this point of view, children are going to be indoctrinated early with the cult of films and film-stars, Hello and Okay, Big Brother, rock and pop music, premier league football and meaningless celebrity.


It does seem that the vortex of popular culture rushes in like a cyclone where there is little in the way of a family culture to withstand its force; but just how powerful can family culture be?  One imagines a family with a well-defined religious tradition, with structures of discipline and routine, with limited television viewing and (perhaps) children in independent schools.  Both parents read, discuss current affairs and listen to and encourage their children’s opinions.  Immediately we have reduced our sample to about 5% of the population, but such a family has hardly a hope in hell of instilling a literate culture in their children.


Beyond the doors to peaceful hearth and home, the cyclone rages, picking up farmhouses and outbuildings, pigs and cows, and hurling them up to heaven.  And in case you don’t know what heaven looks like, try switching on the X-Factor. There is a vast floodlit auditorium, bathed in oceanic blue, studded with searchlights, with electronic snow dappling down across three different stages, each dais welcoming briefly a different population of sequinned guests.  Concealed musicians produce undemanding, indeed long-familiar music.  Converted door-to-door salesmen of central heating appear with microphones to elicit a mumble of infinitely repeated responses of gratitude for support.  These supporters are not far away; indeed they are leaping up and down in T-shirts in the audience. Thus at home in Edinburgh or Cardiff an intense pack of tweenies have sent their representatives to participate, but these in turn hope to see their hero ascend to heaven on their behalf. The show begins at a climactic level of hysteria and gradually intensifies until the tearful Leon experiences actual apotheosis on behalf of us all.


This conduces to immediate, overwhelming sensation. Fame and Fashion are the presiding deities, objects of unexampled devotion, and the cause served — and make no mistake, we are talking about a value system here — is the great lie of outwardness. To describe this combination of power and inanity as a vortex is just; to describe the dismal absence of any educational or critical nous as mediocrity is to commit that grave breach of manners known as over-optimism. It may be such things can happen in modern Britain and other comparable nations solely because of the fading of religious faith and the rushing in of secularism into the vacuum; but even primitive instincts of self-preservation seem to have been lost or willingly abandoned.


Reading is not like this.  Reading implies thinking, critical comparison, memory, reflection and the gradual sifting of what comes to matter to one most.  Culture remains what it always was — the best that has been thought and said.  The reader exists in a simultaneous world in which Marcus Aurelius speaks to Gabriel Marcia Marquez, Plotinus discusses the descent of the soul and each new generation of lyric poet tries its hand at redefining Dante and Horace in a perpetual carousel of harmonious voices.  All of this is inward, in the sense that culture is all that we value most and, as Seamus Heaney puts it, takes the form of a shared inwardness. To those who can read but don’t, and to those who can’t read, alike, is denied the opportunity of spiritual autonomy which is the essence of freedom.


The substitute is deeply discouraging.  The power of the international electronic media is the tyranny of our times, just as at various former times in our history kings, barons, aristocrats and trade unionists posed apparently insuperable obstacles to control by the Common-Wealth (Hobbes’s term). The monster is always hungry and roars about seeking whom it may devour. Youngsters are eager alike to be sucked in as star-struck angels ascending the stairway to heaven and as recruits in the ever-expanding army of journalists and technicians who must keep the monster fed.


Quiet, to the mighty Danube as it flows,

hushed, out onto the balcony.

Quiet, to the drinks machine that takes the new coins.

Quiet. Let us think what to feed the monster next.


Six floors down, in the foyer, the National Lottery Live

is cast up to foraging shoulder-cameras.

This is real time. Through dusk and plate-glass walls

the public peers in. The cameras need no one.[1]


In short, there is no external support system that values longer term, grounded, reflective values of the kind that are pursued through reading.  What happens outside the classroom negates what small successes there may be within it.  We are in the grip of a powerful tyranny which purveys entertainment, success and style at the expense of ancient humane values, which it tends to mock. Every act of private reading may be seen as a difficult gesture of resistance to the prevailing popular culture.  Schools themselves, by substituting busyness for learning, often discourage reading.  Increasingly they are places where young children, having donned their uniforms and stuffed their school bags, go to interact with the surrounding electronic culture.  So reading and creative writing have become acts of resistance even to the culture of schools.


It is impossible to delude ourselves any longer.  Consequently we should cease all attempts to deceive ourselves.  The defence of the humanities has always been slippery — in a Philistine age when ’theory’ and pseudoscience have reigned — and has never been very convincingly conducted.  Today it is in full retreat in the face of an unprecedented threat.  The values of literacy are those of the individuation of spirit, the colloquy of genius across the centuries and the promise of personality.  In an era of shameless cliché to have an original or critical thought is instantly recognized as an act of subversion.  Given the well documented shrinkage of vocabulary, one would be well advised, on Newsnight, not to employ a word like solipsistic.


In conclusion, though it has taken seventeen years for government to promote specific teaching methods likely to promote technical literacy (seventeen years is nothing in a country like this), objective benchmarks of functional literacy remain extremely disappointing in relation to money spent.  The cause lies not inside but outside the classroom, where very little of a literate culture remains to provide an ecosystem for the young reader. Parents and families seem powerless to counteract the vortex of popular culture.  Illiteracy, innumeracy and general stupidity are celebrated everywhere. And the concept of education, which must always be “reformed”, is everywhere too narrow to permit a meaningful linkage between cause and effect, the decline of a literate culture and the decline of literacy.

[1] See Turner, M. The Deer of Tamniès. PublishAmerica, 2006.