Literacy and education

There is no course or curriculum that will solve our problems for us


It seems that there is always a crisis in education. Nobody learns what we all want them and those out there to learn. It is never something we are all happy with; and yet it is the one project which we dearly wish will solve everything. If everyone thought as we do, and did as we wished, all would be fine and hunky dory, and even maybe perfect.

But it ain’t so. Education is as messy a business (although not a business) as life itself. There is no ideology which will hammer the wild imagination of the unfettered spirit into easy conformity. There is no course or curriculum that will solve our problems for us.

The difficulty for any Minister for Education (and Skills and Science and Gadgets and whatever you are having yourself) is to separate the managerial bits and pieces of how schools should be run and organised from the guts of what happens in the classroom. Most teachers don’t give a toddler’s tuck about what how the school is managed as long as they can get on with the normal daily wonder and art of teaching. What teachers do on the chalk or whiteboard in any school is not hugely different in any part of the world. What is different is the teachers.

We in Ireland have valued education because teachers have been valued. Teachers are the poets of knowledge and the prisers of wisdom. This has been so because teachers knew more and were involved more in what was going on in the world. They were more understanding than the lawyer, more clued-in than the priest, more savvy than the shopkeeper, more learned than the local historian. Teachers were the bridge between ignorance and that knowledge which led pupils out of the need to know anything else.

Ruairí Quinn is correct in saying that there is a crisis in literacy. He is wrong in believing all the figures that have been presented to him by the OECD or others. Uncritical examination of these is uncritical. Anyone who uses the cliché “thinking outside the box” is obviously “thinking inside the box”, and anybody who thinks that that our difficulties can be fixed by simple mechanical adjustments doesn’t get the scale of the problem.

The problem of literacy has to do with society, with the bald fact that wrestling with the subtlety of words doesn’t count anymore. If it did, we wouldn’t live in a colony of cliché. Messing around with what words might or not mean is central to education, and messing around with words means fairly paleolithic things like stories , and history, and music, and song, and myth, and wonder, and all that kind of junk which has made us all we are for, ah well, let us us say for only a hundred thousand years.

Ruairí Quinn’s solution to the literacy problem is to reduce it to a matter of teaching skills. Pupils don’t learn to read, because teachers don’t know how to teach the mechanicky bits. Apart from being an insult to all those teachers who have striven to instil a love of reading over several generations, it exalts a massive social problem into a mechanical solution. Pupils don’t read as much as they did any more, because what is in it for them in a society where it is all about what is in it for them against everyone else?

The solution to the literacy problem is not, apart from some difficult cases, mechanical. It is because pupils don’t want to read. They don’t want to read because much of what is presented to them is boring. It is boring because teachers don’t read themselves. They don’t read themselves because their education largely consists of globs of methodology and clunks of theory. Many people may not be aware of the fact that the study of music and geography and French and history and Irish and English literature and language have been largely expunged from teacher education in the larger colleges, with a few nods to the necessary pieties of the useless humanities. They have been replaced with extra dollops of “teaching skills” and the crushing constrictions of the latest educational jacket.

This is one of the most radical deformations that have occurred in education in the last hundred years, and it has passed largely unremarked. The elevation of the teaching profession to a level of wisdom and knowledge beyond the immediate black board which took several generations to attain has been demoted overnight to just another skill-based trick-o-fest, and although the teaching profession will undoubtedly suffer, it is far more serious that our pupils will not gain a jot or a jib from this change.

If Ruairí Quinn wanted to improve the standard of teaching he would get student teachers to read more books, and sing more songs, and thrill more laughs, and know more history, and see more geography, and examine more maps, and wonder more science, and play more music, and compose more poetry, and write more stories, and imagine more countries, and learn more languages.

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