Have we lost the ability to read and write?
Probably about once a week somebody will say in the course of a conversation at which I am present that today’s younger generation cannot read and write. The implication always is that it used to be better and that standards have slipped. And then someone will suggest that, when s/he was younger, everybody would have read most of the novels of Charles Dickens and could quote Shakespeare at will, and moreover could write just like the bard.
I tend to take the view that – no matter what the subject may be – there was never a golden age. We develop, and our priorities change, and these changed priorities are reflected in people’s activities, skills and preoccupations. But when I look more specifically at how literate today’s young people are, I find very little evidence that they are less so than their parents.
A few years ago I was chairing an interview panel in my last university, the University of Hull. One of the candidates for the post had attended the local Winifred Holtby School. When we were told this. I turned to my fellow interviewers to see how many of them knew who Winifred Holtby was. In fact, she was a celebrated local novelist, whose book South Riding is a classic. Of the seven interviewers in the room, only one could tell me the name of a novel written by Holtby – and of course the person concerned was the youngest present.
In my experience, people read and write at least as much as previous generations did. In fact, it is arguable that the internet, with its easy access to information and its platforms for correspondence (email) and authoring (blogs), has galvanised a whole new generation of intensive readers and writers. I might add just two caveats: one, the possibly negative impact of the ubiquitous SMS texting, though I also believe that this may be an ephemeral medium; and secondly, the fact that the disappearance of Latin from the school curriculum has deprived people of the basic tools for understanding and correctly applying the rules of grammar.
I do believe that universities should be guardians of literate culture, and should promote opportunities to enjoy and to participate in creative writing and poetry, both for their primary stakeholders and for the general public. But they should not do that from the perspective of nostalgia for an era some may remember but will never have experienced, because it didn’t exist.Explore posts in the same categories: culture, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.