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The Reading Ban

January 13, 2017

[Excerpts from a government report, translated from the densely academic prosewhich, ironically, argues more eloquently for a ban on reading than anything actuallycontained in the actual report:]

“We are entering the post literate age. Thanks to the latest G technology, useful information and key messages can be accessed through the touch of a button in the blink of an eye. People don’t have time to read nowadays; lots of people never did. Today one can easily perform many useful functions simultaneously and, while the reading of printed matter was once seen as an admirable symptom of aspiration and intellectual hunger, when we see someone reading nowadays it strikes us as suspicious and offensive. If something is worth reading why not share it on social media? Why keep it to yourself? …

“For a couple of thousand years reading was at the very cutting edge of information technology; the book was considered to be the ideal information storage device. However as the years have gone by later technologies and systems have emerged to offer exciting new ways to summarize, conserve and above all share information in an ever expanding, ever more exciting variety of media – pictures that can be given movement, colour and sound, entire 3D, virtual and/or informational universes!…

“A great weight of historical, anecdotal and scientific evidence has made it ever more apparent that books and reading may in fact be extremely harmful to human individuals, groups and societies. For individuals, reading to excess can be bad for the heart, sight and liver, can cause lethargy, sloth and a general deterioration of the physical body, while struggling to unify the conflicting “messages” contained in a variety of texts inevitably causes mental stress, without the relief of interactive, shareable activities offered by more modern media. Variations in taste, belief systems or access to written materials can lead to conflict, causing certain groups to become fragmented, alienated from the bigger society, or to set themselves apart from fellow citizens in unhelpful ways, imagining themselves to be “above” the wider culture. And we are all too familiar with the devastating effect the grasp of an individual text may have on an entire national culture and/or society. That seems to be the basis of most conflicts between nations, as well as fomenting so much crime and discontent within them…

“Where cultural, political and economic leaders were once confined to calling a spade a spade, now they can share the actual experience of being or at least of using a spade, and so avoid a good many of the ambiguities and arguments that inevitably arise in a culture that depends on everyone being, often quite literally, “on the same page”. So training needs of all sorts can be met with more quickly, with much less demanding study methods, perhaps none. Without being tied to the written word, contracts, legislation and laws can be created almost instantly, with more instantaneous, less ambiguous means of enforcement…

“Page sniffers, book collectors and nostalgic fetishists of all sorts try to keep the cult of the printed book going, but they are swimming against the tide and it seems increasingly inevitable that socially, ecologically and above all economically, the printed book and indeed the act of reading itself has served its purpose…

“There is an opportunity here to bring our nation back to the forefront of the global social and economic paradigm by eliminating the cumbersome and expensive machinery of the printed word and replacing it with more satisfactory modern technologies. The book must of course be tolerated during this interim period, for the sake of those unwilling or unable to adapt to this necessary development of our culture, the acceptance of which can be encouraged by carefully monitored social experiments designed to demonstrate the fact that “reading” in its original sense is no longer necessary…

Our people, and especially our young people, need to be encouraged to think and express themselves in ways that suit a modern, forward looking society, so that their intellectual life can easily be shared with others, valued and translated into economically viable units of activity… ”

It seems a stupid idea now, and always did to some of us, but the ban on reading followed the usual path to popular acceptance.

The report quoted from above was at first greeted by a “storm of protest” in the media, with headlines such as “Now the government wants to ban reading!” and campaigns to “Save our printed heritage”.

Government figures fielded these with their usual wealth of urbane explanations and emotive appeals to “fair play” and “efficiency” and soon found that the greater public had persuaded itself that it was its idea that reading was to blame for all of society’s ills and divisions. The suggestion that the eradication of reading should be tried out as “a pioneering experiment” was greeted with predictable cries of “about time!” and “we want reading banned right here right now”, and so the scene was set for the first step to be taken towards “ending the curse of the printed word”.

Fears that the academic establishment might put up some resistance proved groundless. Teachers love new ways of doing things, especially if they might make their job easier and the learning process seem less onerous or challenging to students, and soon they were fighting each other for the honour (and extra funding from central government) that would come from being among the first to jump aboard this latest bandwagon.

The opposition did make a half hearted attempt to be different, of course. Don’t be so radical, they said, it could lead to chaos, why not just start by banning poetry? The government side correctly argued that this would have too little impact and continued on its merry way, happily riding on a rare crest of public support for this latest of innumerable such notions, hatred of “the reading classes”, the latest bogey they had managed to create.

Some civil servant with a sense of humour selected a school in Reading to be the first “Non Reading Academy” and all the nation looked on with bated breath, hoping and praying that this would lead to an easier life for all.

Students rushed in on the first day full of hope, now that their boringly typical state secondary school had been re-branded as the world’s first Non Reading Academy. Several had to be turned away at once, as they arrived thinking that “Non Reading” meant no uniform. The rest had to wait for some time, as their teachers were still thrashing out the details in an unusually heated Staff Meeting.

The Deputy Head struggled to explain the various systems he had devised “in his own spare time” for replacing traditional methods of communication. These included a huge list of numeric codes for subjects and schemes of learning, swipe-able icons and new software programmes and downloadable videos supplied by private educational companies, charities and corporations.

“It may seem complicated at first,” he said encouragingly, “But once you get the hang of it I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how easily the work will proceed under our new system.”

The staff exchanged nervous or cynical glances as was their wont, before sinking their teeth into a long discussion on how mobile phones should be treated, something most of them did care about passionately. Banned in many traditional classrooms, they were now an essential learning tool for students swiping their way from one topic to the next, but what about texting?

Finally it was agreed that texts did not usually count as proper writing and so could be read within reason and without teachers giving any hint of official approval for a medium which, if left uncontrolled, might “let reading in by the back door”.

Then there was a particularly spirited fight for the shiny new resources on offer, the Head of IT assured the staff that all new software would be “up and running” by the end of the day, the Head of the school promised her full hearted support and, ready at last, the staff proceeded to their classrooms, happily noting that there was only ten minutes left before morning break.

Naturally there were a few unexpected teething problems. It had been assumed that every kid has a mobile phone these days but a surprising number didn’t, and several who did had the wrong kind of phone, which could not cope with the demands now being made of it. Dear old Jones of the Geography Department made the mistake of lending his phone to one deserving seeming pupil, and by the end of the day her discovery and “sharing” of certain indiscreet picture messages had put his career in jeopardy.

Those students who had thrived under the old literary culture now found themselves at a disadvantage, under pressure to “perform” in strange new ways without the support of a textbook from which they could indulge in the now heartily discouraged habit of “writing notes”.

Many learning activities were presented as “games” and certain students, previously regarded as untalented at best and more usually as disruptive, found their talent for quick thinking and fast talking and in some cases their ability to “lead the class” being appreciated and utilized for the first time. This did result in some truly inspiring lessons, to which the Head, with her finely honed instincts for self promotion, would smoothly steer important visitors. However, she also had to do her best to prevent them wandering into classrooms where confused staff and incompletely installed software enabled students to create “educational games” of their own, rather different to the ones intended. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that more than one teacher should, in the midst of many chaotic scenes that historic day, for various reasons of their own, end up muttering to him or herself, “I knew it would turn out like this; good thing too!”

Course I was enthusiastic about the reading ban thing from the start. Course I was. For one thing, I have a natural sense of enthusiasm which is just what employers demand these days, and for the other, I was lucky enough to get my very first teaching job in the very first Non Reading Academy in the country!

It wasn’t my first job ever, of course. Before that I’d been a Provider for one of those firms with the thankless task of delivering the government’s latest Job Programme. When I wasn’t forwarding ads from other agencies I’d meet with each customer about once a month, do my best to lower his or her expectations and persuade the little shirker to fill any vacancy, even if it was unpaid and only for “a trial period”.

That company’s contract wasn’t renewed but working there for two years gave me experience of dealing with fairly young people and a range of transferable skills which I was able to bring to education via the “have a go at teaching” initiative. My enthusiasm, good contacts and some lucky timing were enough to land me a job teaching English at Reading NRA, with a promise of rapid promotion as soon as any “veteran” teacher retired or got pushed out.

Not having to deal with books or other printed matter certainly suited me, but then there was the problem of how to fill classroom time without them. The new computer software designed to fill this gap wasn’t ready for weeks, so I had to rely on the school’s old stock of material. Even in the junior groups there were smart alec kids who complained that, for instance, Word Searches involved some reading but I was able to argue that just recognising a word needn’t involve understanding it or having to place it in the context of a sentence and, as most children like nothing more than doing Word Searches, I was generally able to carry this point. Other child friendly exercises (cunningly disguised as games) included “copy the illustration” (hastily corrected to “copy the picture” after I got some stern words of warning from the Head of Department), match the objects (by shape or colour or, for some advanced groups, by category) and the ever popular “cut it up and stick it in your exercise folder”.

The school’s new syllabus assigned each of these activities its own special number and it felt pretty good to show each group’s progress by filling in its own wall chart, which could be seen by visitors as a clear sign that this Non Reading Academy was achieving great results and real success on its own terms.

Free from previous restrictive practices, it wasn’t too hard to claim a 100% success rate. If, for example, a kid accurately copied a picture of an apple, that was an obvious achievement in itself. If he or she got the colour or shape wrong and ended up producing something that looked nothing like an apple, I had to exercise my ingenuity and find a way or praising their creativity or originality. That was handy but generally things went better if the kids copied each other as closely as possible.

Older groups brought me the problem of delivering “classic texts” in a non literary form. Fortunately the school had plenty of copies of film versions of old favourites such as “James and the Giant Peach”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Of Mice and Men” etc etc, and allowing a little discussion plus the usual delays meant one could string out this alternative to reading the things for weeks and weeks, at the end of which every student’s box for that attainment could be ticked.

So things went pretty swimmingly, but of course there were a few characters who seemed determined to make things difficult for me.

Despite the disruption they threatened to cause, it might surprise you to know that I actually have quite fond memories of these reprobates, as they did add a little variety to my day and getting them to toe the line, turning the rest of the class against them or beating them down in some other way did give me a lot of personal satisfaction. What’s more it was handling these very students that ended up teaching me the most and, as I’d said in my interview “Good teachers actually learn more from their students than their students learn from them”.

There was Chloe, a very pretty Year 8 student with big blue eyes and long blonde hair. She always looked very neat in her uniform and she wasn’t ever disobedient or disruptive, so you never expected her to be a problem, and you couldn’t have her removed as you could do with others who slowed the group down. But Chloe’s problem was that she truly loved to draw. She was one of those in the class who turned their noses up at using sketching software and insisted on working by hand.

When she had to draw an apple she would make it look a hundred times more detailed than the picture she’d been given to copy, and nothing could persuade her to take short cuts; it had to be just so and shaded to perfection.

I tried the odd sarcastic remark: “This isn’t an art class Chloe”, tried appealing to her conscience: “Look class, Chloe’s making us all wait again”, tried undermining her confidence: “Oh Chloe, you had it just right a minute ago and now you’re spoiling it!” But once she was engaged in drawing something she would not stop until she was satisfied. If you really tried to press her she would get quite tearful and I hate that, not to mention that it put me in danger of being accused of bullying.

She was a real problem and others in the class were beginning to get too fussy about their work as well.

In the end, though, I found her weak spot – all those coloured pens and pencils she was so proud of. I hit upon the strategy of getting her to lend things out, usually the very pencil she was drawing with so laboriously, or the pink one, always her favourite. She didn’t argue but nine times out of ten her precious things were returned used up or damaged or weren’t returned at all and over time Chloe’s stock of equipment was noticeably reduced and she got less keen on showing it off, until she ended up tackling most tasks with a single lead pencil.

She wouldn’t take the praise when she was among the first to finish the latest task, and complained, “It just doesn’t look as good as it should do.”

“Cheer up Chloe,” I told her, “It’s good to be outstanding but it doesn’t pay to stand out,” which I still think is good advice, not just for school but for work and life itself.

At the other extreme was Marvin, who was only in Year Seven but was already a born trouble maker.

“I don’t understand” that was his mantra whenever he was asked a question or even just to comment on something.

“For goodness sake Marvin, it’s a video, you don’t have to understand it, you just have to watch it,” I’d say, but he’d caught on to the fact that his stupidity amused the rest of his group and wound me up, and he soon began playing up to it.

Marvin wasn’t the best looking kid; in fact I’d describe him as pig ugly if that wasn’t unprofessional, but he had a fixed determination which won him grudging respect from his peers, who often took his side when I tried to get him on task.

“Come on sir,” they’d say, “He’s trying his best,” when obviously he wasn’t.

It was a tough situation because Marvin was just the kind of student Reading NRA was supposed to be helping. We knew he couldn’t read when he came in. Who knew he couldn’t do anything else either?

Despite being thick as a plank Marvin did display a certain cunning when it came to maintaining a balancing act between getting on my nerves and being disruptive in a manner which would get him removed. He left it to others to turn his inability to respond appropriately into the kind of disruption that got other teachers knocking on my door to enquire what the problem was.

When I got the chance I had a quiet word with the little so and so.

“Look sonny,” I said, resorting to a phrase often used by teachers in such circumstances, “If it’s a fight you want you should know that you can’t possibly win.”

Marvin looked straight into my eyes with an expression that made me think he might not be so thick after all.

“I’m not trying to pick a fight, sir, but if you are trying to threaten me I can assure you that my mum will not stand for that.”

I could tell he meant what he said and, not wanting to undermine my own position, I did back off from him a little and stopped asking him questions or to do things.

Marvin settled down a little after that, and seemed happy enough to be left to play with his iPad. The hell of it was that I still had to give him a pass for his year’s work, to keep his group’s average up.

Marvin was a right pain, but the worst student I had was Julie, a grim faced, dark haired Year 13 who had been corrupted by years of studying the old fashioned way, actually reading the prescribed texts, using an electronic reader once she’d been caught sneaking printed versions into class.

She thought books were some personal crusade or something and would always bang on about how “nothing could replace an original text” and other such nonsense. Her parents must’ve read to her when she was a kiddie. She even had the nerve to criticize Mel Gibson’s performance as Hamlet.

Following my senior colleague’s advice, I did my best not to rise to her bait, and simply encouraged her to perform the same tasks as everyone else until, while the rest of her group were enjoying the duelling game based on Act 5 which was giving them valuable keyboard skills, she cracked.

“We should be getting insight into the characters’ psychology and motivation,” she said, though these were already listed by the software and could be accessed at the touch of a button, “And getting a sense Shakespeare’s artistry, his language, themes and the values and context of his historical period, not playing stupid games about how to chop Hamlet’s head off or turn him into a zombie!”

This was use of language described in the school’s charter as “hateful” and was totally unacceptable, obviously.

I made it very clear to Julie that she had gone too far.

“Sod you then!” she said, and actually stomped out of the classroom.

It gave me a worrying couple of hours, but when I spoke to the Head about the incident and showed her the way I had written it up she promised me her total support.

“We want our students to be happy and enthusiastic,” the Head told me, “And if they’re not that’s bad for them and bad for the whole school.”

I didn’t see Julie after that, and learnt later that luckily for her her parents had just managed to get her transferred to another, more traditional Academy, that catered to the demanding kind of student she’d turned out to be.

So all in all I was feeling pretty happy by the end of my first year at Reading NRA, and pretty positive when I went for my end of term assessment meeting with my Head of Department. But I was in for a bit of a shock.

“We’ve decided not to renew your contract,” she said, coming straight to the point as usual.

My stomach tightened into a painful knot.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “All my completing students have achieved a 100% success rate.”

She tried to look sympathetic.

“Yes, that’s a good achievement. But I’m afraid that’s no longer good enough. You achieved that last term and, as you know, schools and all the teachers in them are expected to improve year on year, term by term.”

“So how can I achieve more than 100% success?”

“There’s no need to be impertinent. We are working very hard to find new ways of defining success, so that we can be even more outstanding next year.”

Obviously my number was up, for whatever reason, probably to do with budgeting. I can’t pretend it wasn’t a blow but there was no point in protesting further.

It was a drag not to get the promotion I’d been promised but I soon got over that. To be honest, teaching was beginning to bore me anyway. It just wasn’t challenging enough for someone with my abilities So I accepted a promise of an excellent reference with my usual enthusiasm and, as one must in the modern working world, started making plans for a new career path


From → Writer

One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    How about talking about Porchester School for boys now?


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