March 18: literacy

At the start of the First World War in 1914 the French government gave a reading and writing test to all conscripts. 70% were deemed to be unable to read more than a few words. In 2020 we can all read, more or less, though poor literacy is more common than you might think. I suppose that screen culture has in many ways helped. Kids are attracted to social media, texting and games, which all include a degree of reading, but the ability of many children to read a page of writing is poor. When I am teaching I find the only way for many of the kids to follow a text is if I read it out loud. I tell them to follow in the text but when I look up their eyes are looking round the room. Concentration dips. Malebranche, the 17th Century French thinker, noted tha la concentation est la piete de l’ame (Concentration is the piety of the soul). Concentration, then, was viewed as an almost religious quality. It may be that our period of genuine literacy is no more than a brief moment of sunlight in an otherwise cloudy day. The ability to be alone is a skill that we all need to acquire in these days.

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