The (very) Portuguese writer José Saramago opened his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech with the words ‘The wisest man I have ever met didn’t know how to read or write’. The term for that in Portuguese is analfabetismo, or in English illiteracy. Saramago’s highfalutin homily about his illiterate grandfather, who on the final day of his life went round saying a tearful adeus to all the trees on the land which had sustained him throughout 90 or so years, wasn’t meant to suggest that it’s a waste of time learning to write or read, although anyone who’s tried to get though the novel ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ will have experienced that sensation at some point. Saramago meant that books are not the only means of experiencing reality, and that someone who some might be inclined to regard as an ignorant old peasant was just as sensitive and articulate as, well, a Nobel Prize-winning author.
Not knowing how to read and write does not imply being unable to express oneself verbally. While the ability to speak develops organically, most people learn the technical skills of literacy at school, and although their lives are generally vastly improved as a result, it doesn’t necessarily make them more intelligent or a better person – as a case in point I’d just like to mention that the novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, whose author (Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand) was, significantly, never nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is over 1,200 pages long.
The worldview (apparently) espoused in that book – that there are no values, only prices, and that those who have money are better than those who don’t – is one that warms the blood of the kind of lizards who are appointed to cabinet positions on Theresa May’s cabinet. That’s presumably why, when tasked with addressing falling levels of adult literacy, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi immediately thought of the buying and selling of footwear. After, all if it’s not a exchange of cash for goods and services, what’s the meaning of any human endeavour? Her idea (and I am absolutely not making this up, it was in The Guardian yesterday) is to train the staff of shoe shops to engage young people in conversation while selling them shoes, thereby improving their language skills and making them into literate adults.
Of course, there has to be a commercial interest involved, so the scheme is a tie-in with, er, Clarks. After all, we all remember (how could we ever forget?) the horrifying images of smashed and looted branches of Clarks shoes during the 2011 riots. If there’s one thing that interests young people nowadays apart from their phones, it’s the thought of the latest range of sensible footwear from…
Hold on, there’s also their phones. Young people probably spend more time reading and writing nowadays than they ever have before. Granted, they may not be using the standard variety of language – in fact, just like when they speak – just like, in fact, when any of us speak – they and we draw on a huge range of codes, styles, registers and other semiotic resources including emojis. This is, after a fashion – and young people tend to take fashion quite seriously, which is why they don’t shop in fucking Clarks – literacy in action, and if schools want to develop their pupils’ ability to read and write – as they should, and they do, in ways that way surpass whatever sub-‘The Thick Of It’ brainwaves pass through the mammon-fixated minds of government ministers, then it’s that they should be seeking to work with.
Let’s return to the original and universally accepted definition of literacy: the ability to read and write. Let’s expand it a little to include knowledge of what the word ‘literacy’ actually means. I put it to you, then, that the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi, is…illiterate.