Book Review by Sean Gabb
The Great Reading Disaster: Reclaiming Our Educational Birthright
Mona McNee and Alice Coleman
Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2007, 341pp, £17.95 (pb)
(Review published in The Quarterly Review, Winter 2007)
This book narrates and explains one of the great disasters of our time. As is often this case with disasters of our time, it also narrates and explains a scandal that in earlier ages would have provoked incredulity. Its theme is the collapse of educational standards in this country, and how this has been brought on by a persistent unwillingness to teach children to read using the only methods that are known to work in the great majority of cases.
Universal literacy was not a product of the 1870 Education Act, but was a fact already established by the late 19th century. Between 1818 and 1858, the British population grew by 68 per cent. However, the number of children at school grew by 271 per cent. In 1865, the Royal Navy reported that 99 per cent of its boy recruits could read. This was an improvement on the 89 per cent of seamen and the 94 per cent of petty officers who could read. But these latter figures show that illiteracy was all but unknown among what was probably not a grossly unrepresentative sample of the working classes.
The establishment between 1870 and 1891 first of state education, and then of compulsory education and then of free state education did little but consolidate the earlier gains. By the late 1920s, the Czech observer Robert Saudek, speaking from his wide experience of outer countries, declared that British education was the best he had seen. In 1931, the Hadlow Report stated that barely one per cent of school children in the state sector needed systematic reading instruction after the age of seven.
Contrast all this with today, where something like a third of school leavers are illiterate in the plain meaning of the word, and an unknown number can read in the most basic sense, but not well enough to be able to take up a book or one of the more serious newspapers.
We cannot make the full contrast, as statistics have not been collected, or have been withheld or massaged into nonsense. But we can see the fragments of evidence all around – from the childish babble of popular newspapers and magazines to the strangled illiteracy of most public and commercial notices. Those of us who are university lecturers live daily with the fact of native-born students who cannot read their text books and cannot write grammatical prose without systematic plagiarism from Wikipedia.
For the authors of this book, as said, the reason for the collapse is the method used for teaching children to read. Methods that have been used for thousands of years in our civilisation have been rejected in favour of methods that do not work – and are, perhaps, not intended to work.
Now let me digress a moment on the nature of what is to be learnt. It is never wise to trace complex developments back to a single cause. But one of the reasons why European civilisation – with the possible exception of two or three centuries – has consistently done better than all others, and why every reverse and even collapse has been followed renewed growth, is the nature of our writing system. Other civilisations have at best consonantal alphabets. The others have hieroglyphic or syllabic systems. In these civilisations, learning to read requires about the same effort and commitment as learning to play a musical instrument well. When someone must know hundreds or thousands of symbols before he can so much as read a newspaper, a substantial part of his mind must be given over to memorisation. When these symbols represent whole words or substantial combinations of sounds, he will lack the early, close exposure to what may be called atomic thinking – the endless arrangement and rearrangement of simple things into more complex structures. The result has been the confinement of literacy to small classes, or a stifling of the imagination – and usually both.
What the Greeks developed and handed on to us was the concept of a small number of symbols, each one of which represents a sound, and which can be used to signify any word in the language. The Greek alphabet has 24 symbols. The Roman alphabet, as adapted for English, has 26. The Slovak alphabet is the largest in the Roman family. Taking in the hacheks and liquid consonants, it has 44 symbols.
Learning these symbols, and how to combine them into potentially millions of words, is remarkably simple. All other factors aside, any people that has an alphabetic system of writing will have advantages of more widespread literacy and greater flexibility of thinking.
These advantages have seldom been absolute. Greek schoolboys do not seem to have been taught to read by combining letters, but instead had to learn a large number of syllables that had already been combined for them. And English is hardly a phonetic language: very often, the letters used to write a word give no guidance to its pronunciation. But even when not fully realised, alphabetic writing has advantages over all other kinds that make it one of the greatest achievements of the mind.
Yet, for sixty years and more, “progressive” theorists of education have been doing their best to make our alphabetic system into a mass of hieroglyphics. Traditionally in our civilisation, reading was taught first through the recognition of individual letters and then through their combination into increasingly complex words. This was a method that showed results within a few weeks and was substantially complete for most children within a few years. It was fast. It was cheap. It worked.
Strip away all the hot air about rote learning and stifling of creativity, and the look-say method really does turn alphabetic writing into hieroglyphs. Children begin by learning the shape of simple words. They then progress to longer and more complex words. The idea is that all the drilling is eliminated of letters and their basic combinations. Instead, children move straight to reading simple tests.
The problem with this approach has already been explained. Learning to read may seem faster at first, but soon degenerates into a memorising word shapes that is beyond the ability of many children who would learn to read perfectly well through a more atomic approach.
Of course, the Japanese and other Oriental races appear to have high levels of literacy. Hieroglyphic systems may not prevent universal literacy. But, as said, they require more commitment. And high levels of commitment are as denigrated by the progressive theorists as the older methods of learning to read.
Ayn Rand said somewhere that some mistakes are too big to have been made by accident. And the authors of this book make it clear that the progressive hegemony is more than just muddled thinking. We have a ruling class in this country that flourishes in proportion to the inability of ordinary people to read and think for themselves in ways that were common a hundred years ago. A population that has no taste for political thought, and is instead drugged on trash television, is almost as docile as the illiterates who, until the Reformation and the spread of printing, used to sit every Sunday in church listening to services and readings in a language none of them could understand.
Or, looking below the level of grand conspiracy, there is the tangle of special interest groups that grow rich on managing problems they have created and that they exist to perpetuate.
This book is the best place to start for anyone who wants to know what went wrong with education in this country, and why it went wrong. It is also strong on arguing for the radical decentralisation needed if the decline is to be reversed. A pure bonus, though, is the short reading course given in the last part of the book. The authors both have a long experience of teaching children to read, and their course is something that anyone with young children should be eager to have for himself.
In short, this is an excellent book. At £7.99 each, 650 copies would cost £5,193.50. Sending one copy to every winning candidate at the next general election would be as wise a political investment as can be imagined at the price.