A few years ago I was teaching literacy skills to various adults who, for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten around to learning how to read or write. It didn’t take long for me to realize that you actually have to be extra clever as an adult if you need to navigate the world without literacy. One guy who I taught was a pub owner, another worked in a factory. There was a dressmaker, a deliveryman, a taxi driver and various other occupations. They all had two things in common: they were experts in working around not having literacy, and they all kept their lack of literacy skills a secret. At first I had this naïve idea that actually they were managing fine and didn’t need to read and write seeing as they could manage perfectly well without it thank you. Of course, I soon found out otherwise. The taxi driver told me that although he knew all the streets of the city by memory, he was brought to utter embarrassment when the local school asked him to fill out a form for his son’s swimming lessons. In fact, when we started out, his goal was to learn how to spell the names of his four children. The dressmaker told me that although she loved health and fitness, she could never join a gym because she wouldn’t have the confidence to fill out the application form. But what really brought it home to me when the publican asked me what all the writing on a cereal box was about.
It made me think about how much writing hits you from the time you get up in the morning – is this one shampoo or shower gel? What kind of milk is it? What are these flyers about that come in the letterbox? Well for those of us who can read, we know that most of it is a lot of irrelevant advertising, but when you can’t, you’re left with a feeling that you’re missing out on what’s really going on in the world. And that’s when you begin to doubt yourself and from there you lose your confidence and then it’s all a big slippery slope.
The one thing that really got to me with all of my students was that they would consistently talk about not having an education.
I might be playing around with words, because I know what they meant, but I always went to lengths to point out that they had indeed received an education, most of them, no, all of them, a richer education than my own, but that they may have been missing out on ‘a schooling’. That said, most of them had been to school until about the age of 12, so they did in fact have enough schooling to learn how to read and write, hence one does have to wonder why school lets so many people down.
So what then, is education? Well the dictionary tells us that it’s ‘the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.’
And if you agree with that just make sure that you don’t ever send your children to school. School is a place where you get detention if you’re not wearing the right anorak with the school crest on it. It’s a place where you learn to jump through hoops like a little circus dog, and it’s a place where you pick your subjects not at all based on acquiring general knowledge or developing the powers of reasoning and judgment. You pick the subjects that will get you the most points for the least amount of effort. So even though one of my teenage sons who was really into history, dropped it at school because ‘I have really bad hand writing and there’s so much writing in the test and they take away points if it’s messy.’ His six subjects were: English, Irish (because you have to), Maths, Physics, Accounting, Economics and German. So there goes acquiring ‘general’ knowledge for a start. But hang on a minute, what about the powers of reasoning and judgement and all that preparing for ‘mature’ life? Well you see, here’s the thing. Last week I asked my teenage daughter to share the joke when she was laughing out loud at some home video. It was one taken at lunchtime in school. Two boys from the class were having a rap competition. One, an African kid, shit hot and brilliant, rapping away with his own words, his own work, and a bunch of kids dancing to it. Then the other kid, a little small Irish guy who decided he was up for the challenge, and a whole bunch of kids high on the rapping competition, jiving in the locker rooms.
I know that the people I worked with who never went to school in their teens probably got a better education and became successful in what they did, but so also do those who do go to school, not from the lessons and tests and results, the real reading happens between the lines. School does educate people. But only at break time and in between the lessons.