I would have went to the meeting only I was sick, the young teacher explained to me some years ago, apologising for missing the annual excruciating encounter in which I found myself patronised by a person twenty years younger and with half my life experience.
You would have went? I thought, but I didn’t say anything. You’re a teacher. Don’t you mean you would have gone? Do you not know what the past participle is?
But of course, I knew it was futile to even think such things, let alone express them. I knew that the young teacher was part of a generation that had never been taught grammar in school, not to mention punctuation or spelling. What’s more, I suspected that the young teacher came from a home that did not value such things, but depressingly, I also knew that this ignorant young person was nominally in charge of my small child’s education.
I know you would have gone if you could, I reassured her.
I would, she agreed. I would have went.
No meeting of minds there. Let’s move on.
The OECD has reported that Irish university students are among the most illiterate in the world and furthermore that their arithmetic is atrocious, but that surely comes as no surprise. Ask any third-level lecturer what sort of people are coming into their first-year courses and they’ll all tell you the same thing.
Engineering and science lecturers are having to teach their first-years basic Leaving Cert mathematics.
Humanities lecturers, or at least the ones who care, are trying to teach undergraduates the principles of English that they themselves understood in primary school. They have to start these people right at the beginning and teach them the sort of basic skills that one would expect an average ten-year-old to know.
Of course, one would be wrong to expect that, since the average ten-year-old no longer knows the sort of things they used to. The average ten-year-old today is being taught by somebody who was the average ten-year-old ten years previously, long after our education system had abandoned any commitment to grammar, punctuation or spelling. Long after our teachers were expected to understand addition and multiplication, never mind mathematics.
What’s more, anyone who tries to oppose the disastrous collapse in literacy and numeracy is dismissed as a Grammar Nazi by people who wouldn’t know what grammar is if you smashed them over the head with a concrete-filled completed pluperfect. And so finally we realise that an adherence to standards of reading, of grammar and of numeracy isn’t a form of pedantry, but a measure of how well we’re doing in the world.
The Finns understand this and so do the Japanese. The Dutch know it and the Koreans know it as well they might since they topped the table. These people teach their children well, and they do it at home as well as doing it in school, just as we used to do here in Ireland, or at least, just as some people used to do.
It’s true that some families never cared a jot for their children’s education in this country. It’s true that some parents never bothered to encourage reading among their children, probably because they never cared for reading themselves, but it’s also true that many parents, of every social class, considered literacy to be vitally important and brought their children twice a week to the free public library to borrow and return books.
Does that happen any more?
Of course it does, in families that care, but for the rest I don’t know. According to the OECD report, one in five Irish university students are just about able to understand the instructions on a bottle of pills. Read that again. University students, not five-year-olds. There was a time when a person with such poor reading skills would not be accepted for a job as a street sweeper and yet now, somehow, they manage to get into university, even if they don’t last very long.
We need to draw lessons from this.
We need to recognise that we have moved too far from our former commitment to excellence. We need to embrace the idea that excellence in language is a good thing. We need to rejoice in the notion that numeracy is a liberating concept.
We need to make our children feel good about being well-read.
We need to walk away from the know-nothing tyranny that has dragged us down to this level and we need to show a bit of pride in ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll continue to bump along the bottom, with only the UK being more ignorant.
Is that where we want to be?