Meeting the need to read

I'm always surprised when my occupations collide, which is strange, given that being an educator and an author are more similar than they are different. For instance, both involve the imparting of information to an audience; then there is the fact that a certain level of discipline is required, in the form of rules and deadlines, if one is to succeed in meeting one's aims and, much as it pains me to admit it, the outcomes of doing so in either role are equally rewarding.

Of course, to suggest that the role of teacher or author consists of 'imparting information' implies that the 'audience' is a passive receptacle, an empty vessel awaiting fulfillment, when indeed this notion has long since been abandoned in respect of our readers and is presently unfashionable in education, where the dichotomy of 'teaching and learning' has been reordered and replaced by a perceptually more egalitarian notion of 'learning and teaching'. Nonetheless, as a qualified, time-served member of the teaching profession, and one with a highly academic specialism at that, there are times when I can not help but engage in the didactic transmission of knowledge: me teacher, you students. Listen and learn, read and inwardly digest - that sort of thing.

Those engaged in teaching forty years ago perhaps did not experience a guilty sense of 'educating without consent', although (ignoring democratic consensus for a moment) all compulsory education is precisely this, which is where teaching and authorship depart to some degree. Novel writing is always a compromise between what we want to write and what we believe our audience wants to read. Get it wrong and they put the book down for good, a luxury of choice withheld from students, regardless of the quality of teaching / learning they are forced to endure.

As usual I digress, for my goal here is not to present ad hoc, anecdotal career advice. Rather, it is to vent my frustration at having received, from Amazon, a somewhat useless and generic guide to accessing Kindle books on multiple devices in response to querying whether Kindle based school libraries were possible. To put this in context, some years ago my school dispensed with its poorly stocked, rarely accessed library, a decision which, in light of Mr. Gove's 'golden age of education' delusion, is at best regrettable. Nonetheless, we needed the space and the finance freed by this move to fund our ever burgeoning computer network - a priority ascribed by the previous Government.

Now, as the Office of Standards in Education arm up with a new literacy based remit, we, like many institutions, are faced with the massive challenge of resuscitating reading for pleasure in a culture that has declared it a relic of the past. And whilst I (begrudgingly) agree with the Education Secretary's assertion that "Children who cannot read are condemned to spend their entire life in a prison house of ignorance"1., 'austerity' measures (robbing from the poor to give to the rich) have not only devastated our public library system, but ensured that parents already short on family time must now work longer and less sociable hours than ever before.

For all of this, children are reading, just not as much or in the same way as they used to. Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust in 20112. shows a preference for online reading - websites and emails have replaced comics and books, although more than half of the respondents reported that they read magazines, so it is not just the technological paradigm at work. Of greater concern is the significant decline in book reading related to children's age and one imagines Facebook is in no small way to blame. True enough, the transition from primary to secondary education puts an end to the fanatical and universal trawling home with reading books and on one level I'm very glad about that. There is nothing worse than dragging a screaming, kicking nine year old through the mandatory five pages of Biff, Chip and Kipper, the only benefit being that it won't be me coming under the scrutiny of a terrifyingly disappointed primary head teacher.

Thus, it is not so much that I believe Mr. Gove when he suggests illiteracy condemns our children in their ignorance. This is relatively easy to address: increase rather than reduce the funding to public libraries and schools; put reading at the centre of the curriculum; continue to set reading as homework at high school. All of these measures will force children to learn to read.

Alas what it can not do is make them like, or even love, reading, let alone writing. It is not just a 'prison house of ignorance' which threatens our society, but the poverty of creativity and expression, be that through the written word, music, sculpture or otherwise. It is not naive to suggest that the behavioural problems experienced by many of today's young people result from incapacity of expression. Various forms of mental health treatment and therapy utilise creative pursuits - painting, poetry, even the simple act of writing a letter - because they are the safest way of freely expressing our emotions and 'getting it off our chest'. Without such outlets, we must attempt to keep our frustrations firmly locked away, until such point as they become too great to contain.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with Kindle libraries in schools: if, as the research implies, young people are not reading books, but are reading online, then it is logical to conclude that they might find reading of books via Kindle or some other technological means a more tempting proposition than being coerced into carting a hard copy of 'The Hobbit' around for the next term. Now, if Amazon might like to catch up / read my questions more thoroughly (delete as applicable), I'd be happy to pilot a Kindle based library in my school, because I truly believe in the power of reading and writing, even if I doubt both the veracity and efficacy of Michael Gove's policies to eradicate illiteracy. In light of the cuts to arts funding and the absence of the visual and performing arts from the English Baccalaureate, the literacy drive is all that is left - a lone and inadequate raft on a Wide Sargasso Sea.

But we do have the technology...

  1. London Evening Standard (1st June, 2011) Michael Gove promises to free children from 'prison house of ignorance'
  2. National Literacy Trust (2011) The Gift of Reading in 2011: Children and young people's access to books and attitudes towards reading