22 February, 2014

The decline of literacy

Interesting incident on the way in to work today. I had the misfortune to be walking in just before nine. Misfortune because all the students are making their way to their first lectures of the day at this time and they literally take over. Fill up the entire pavement by walking in large groups. Whizz along the road on bikes, skipping red lights and almost causing accidents left, right and centre.

Anyway, I was walking along next to one such large group when one of the young men piped up with ‘What does “panache” mean?...Only I want to be able to describe myself that way.' Sounds a bit risky, if you ask me, wanting to describe yourself with a word for which you don’t know the meaning. But the really interesting thing was that not one of his colleagues was able to answer his question. I helpfully obliged, which was met with thanks and comments along the lines of ‘Oh, so that’s what it means!’, rolled around on the tongue as if discovering a new and interesting vintage.

Now, this was a group of Oxford University students. It is natural to assume that such people will be bright, be educated and, quite frankly, know the meaning of a word such as ‘panache’. I could settle for one student in the group not knowing the meaning—but all of them? Come on!

And it’s not the first time that I’ve come across this kind of deficit. I work with a group of Oxbridge-educated postdocs who frequently don’t seem to know the meaning of words that I would consider commonplace. They also seem to lack the ability to spell.

So why is this? Is it that these people are scientists and so don’t have a bent for language? Language is my first love and I read and write all the time, so it makes sense that I have a wide vocabulary and know how to spell. Or is it an age thing? Perhaps young people aren’t taught English in the way that I was back in the 70s and 80s. Yet both my children are good writers, can spell, and seem to me to have large vocabularies (they are both voracious readers). Or maybe it’s genetic—my father was a writer, I am a writer, and my children appear to be following the family tradition.

Call me old fashioned (and, believe me, I often feel old fashioned when writing my blog articles!), but I think that the whole language package (writing, spelling, words) is undervalued and has become increasingly undervalued in the years since I was a child. You only have to look at the UK higher education landscape these days to realise that the areas most strongly supported and funded are the sciences (particularly those perceived as leading to human health benefits) and vocational subjects. Education no longer appears to be valued for its own sake, which means that the humanities in general are being systematically eroded. And it tends to be in the humanities that language—the ability to communicate, to express oneself well in writing, to be vividly descriptive as well as analytic—really thrives.

Yet, in my opinion, education should be about something more than a narrow-minded learning of one’s subject—whether that subject is scientific, artistic or vocational. It should be about awareness of the wider world, having an appreciation of culture and literature, and—yes—being able to write, spell, and use words correctly.

15 February, 2014

Religion and biblical fables

Last week, the media reported on some research carried out by the Bible Society, which indicated a number of things:
  • almost three out of ten children did not know that the story of the birth of Jesus comes from the Bible;
  • a similar number had never heard stories about Adam and Eve or the Crucifixion;
  • more than a third did not know that the tales of the Good Samaritan and David and Goliath come from the Bible;
  • many of the parents in the study considered the Bible to be a good source of values for their children AND YET almost half of them did not recognise that the story of Noah's Ark comes from the Bible, and many muddled up biblical stories with the plot lines of well know films such as the Harry Potter series.
I was surprised by these findings -- and the fact that parents were confusing biblical stories with film plots struck me as laughable. How was this possible, I asked myself?

In a bid to understand, I asked my children about the stories listed above and where they come from. They knew the answers and, it turns out, they know a lot more detail about these stories that I do. Our family is not religious (I don't remember having told my children biblical stories), but we do have a good level of general knowledge and my children do attend Church of England schools. Maybe that's the answer, then.

Even though I'm not religious, it strikes me as 'a good thing' to know a bit about the Bible, the stories and morals contained within it, and religion in general. Why? Well, first off because religion is an important part of the history and culture of this country, and is worth learning about for that reason alone. Second, because religion has shaped and affected many of the events and thought processes in British culture (the Crusades, divorce, dissolution of the monasteries, ordination of women, to name but a few). And third because whatever one might think of the Bible (or indeed religion in general) it does impart some significant messages. The importance of putting sectarian differences aside in order to help an individual in need (aka the tale of the Good Samaritan), for example.

Granted the plot lines of the Harry Potter films do highlight some thought-provoking issues, but  for some reason I find myself baulking at according them the same level of historical, cultural and moral significance as our religious and biblical fables.

08 February, 2014

A Life in Time

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am a Penelope Lively fan. I was lucky enough to receive her latest book as a Christmas gift from my children, and recently finished reading it.

This book is called "Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time". Unlike most of Lively's other books (the ones I've read, anyway), this is not a work of fiction. Rather it is is something like a memoir, but not quite--perhaps it is best described as an extended essay on the topic of old age.

The book falls into five parts. The first examines what it is actually like to be old (Lively is now eighty)--the pleasures and the pitfalls; what old age feels like. The second examines the overarching backdrop to Lively's life--the political, social and archaeological era that has contextualised her existence. The third examines memory--why people remember as they do and how memory deteriorates with age. The fourth focuses on books and writing--Lively discusses some of the books that have made the greatest impression on her, and how they have have influenced her own writing. And the final part talks about six objects that Lively owns and which, in different ways, represent and define different parts of her life.

The quality of Lively's writing is, as usual, first class. When reading her prose, I always feel as if I am listening to a good friend. Her writing instils that kind of intimacy, while at the same time touching on profound, deeply meaningful matters. Quite a feat, but then that is her gift.

As with all of Lively's work, this book comes highly recommended, particularly the sections on old age and memory. (I found the section on the political and social context informative, but a little dull--although I suspect that someone of Lively's own generation would find the material here much more interesting.)

My only complaint is that this book has a touch of finality about it--memoirs, old age and so on are all suggestive of the end of an era. I just hope that this isn't so quite yet and that this won't be the last book that Lively writes.

01 February, 2014

The religious life

We were out on a family walk recently and our route took us past a monastery. This prompted our youngest daughter, always hungry for information, to ask what is the point of monasteries; what are monks and nuns, what do they actually do.

That's an interesting set of questions, especially these days. In years gone by, the answer to these questions was much more clear cut. The religious life could provide refuge from disgrace (inability to find a husband, birth outside wedlock, homosexuality), from poverty, from ill health. And once there, a religious house could provide opportunities that were perhaps not available to such people in the outside world--board and lodging for a start, a good education, a structured life, even a career for the ambitious. Of course, some degree of religious faith was also required--or at least the ability and willingness to go along with a religious life.

Yet nowadays, these kinds of advantages are widely available on the outside. Unmarried women are able to support themselves. Birth out of wedlock and sexual orientation are no longer an issue. The state keeps its people out of abject poverty.

So why do people become monks and nuns in the twenty-first century? The short answer is that far fewer do. According to a Guardian article, in 2000 there were roughly 710 nuns and 230 monks in Anglican religious orders in Britain and Ireland, but by 2008 those numbers had dropped by over a third--to 470 nuns and 135 monks. Some religious houses have even taken to running 'taster weekends' in an attempt to attract new recruits. One assumes that, for those who do take the habit, one of the overriding motivators must be religious faith, given that the other advantages of religious life are no longer apparent. Yet, as we all know, religiosity is on a downward spiral (in the UK, at least), with secularism being the order of the day.

I have some experience in this area. I grew up as a vicar's daughter and, when I was travelling with my father, we often used to stay in the guesthouse of the local nunnery. My overriding memories are of large gardens in which fruit and vegetables were grown, of meals eaten in companionable silence, of a quiet and slow moving life. I haven't stayed in one of those guesthouses for over three decades now--in fact, I have no idea whether such facilities still exist--but it seems a pity that they might not due to the lack of a religious 'workforce'.

Of course, the tables may turn again, I suppose. I am currently reading a book by Penelope Lively in which she points out that although we in the UK now live in a very open society in which all manner of things are talked about and done quite freely, social mores have changed more than once throughout history. The eighteenth century was similarly unfettered (debauched, some might say), yet the Victorian age of modesty was a direct reaction to the liberality of that time. And now we have come full circle.

Perhaps the religious tables will similarly turn, and ours will revert to a a much more spiritual society in which the youth are falling over one another to make it to the front of the religious order entrance queue. That's hard to imagine, though, from where we currently stand.