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David Bouchier: Basic education

Dorothea Lange, National Archives

The schools are in session, and the vital business of education is moving unsteadily forward again. Basic education is hard, but not complicated. It is the task of transforming the raw material of brand-new human beings into some semblance of intelligent citizens who know enough make their own way in the world and contribute something to society. As the old saying goes: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Education always suffers in wartime, and the past two years have been very like a war. Schools were thrown into chaos by the COVID threat and, as if that wasn’t enough, swept up in the irrational culture wars. I’m not an expert on education, but I was educated, more or less, and have been a teacher, so I think I know something.

One thing I think I know — which is so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to say it — is that basic education should teach the most basic skills. In my childhood they were jokingly referred to as the “three Rs”: reading, riting, and rithmetic. Nothing is more important — not playdough, or Sesame Street, nor even (dare I say) sports. Reading and writing open the door to a world of pleasure, knowledge and self-expression. Rithmetic is kind of dull for those of us not gifted that way, but enormously useful. A grownup should be able at least to do basic sums without a calculator. Math is also the first step towards understanding logic, science and statistical methods. Without the three Rs you can be deceived by anybody, or deceive yourself, about almost anything.

With a general illiteracy rate of around 12%, and one in five high school graduates lacking the most basic math and reading skills, all other debates about education seem irrelevant. There’s no point in arguing about the detailed content of the curriculum when millions of children don’t have the mental equipment to distinguish sense from nonsense. If they don’t or can’t read, they will get all their information from screens, and we know what kind of information they will find on those screens.

Mass education has always been a kind of indoctrination — mine certainly was. Those big, expensive school systems exist to pass on the wisdom of the tribe. So young people have always been taught a lot of semi-mythical stuff, especially about history, that doesn’t stand up to close examination.

But children soon learn, from personal experience, the difference between the classroom and the real world, where most learning happens. In my school days we were well aware of the parallel universe outside the school gates, quite different from the things we were being taught inside.

We learned by indiscriminate and inquisitive reading, and the censors know this. Censorship of books is the traditional weapon of those who are scared of the truth and uneasy about their own authority. The best defense against truth is ignorance, which is why a small but vocal minority of parents would like to control reading in schools, or even the whole curriculum, to promote their own agenda of myths, conspiracies and historical wish-fulfillment dreams.

Things are difficult enough for educators already, and we mustn’t ask them to promote ignorance. But I like to think that if children are taught to read thoughtfully and critically, they won’t be content with the dreary books approved by the censors. If only they have literacy, and libraries, we can safely leave the truth to them.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.