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.

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