Are our children literate? We’d better hope so.

Posted on February 19, 2020

PicklesJudge James Pickles 1925-2010

Justice James Pickles. Does the name mean anything to you? No? Well, way back in time while acting as a circuit judge, Pickles famously asked ‘who are The Beatles’ during a court case. It was universally proclaimed as proof positive that the senior judiciary – old, male, privately educated – was hopelessly out of touch with ordinary life and, frankly, such comments make that difficult to contradict. Pickles, who died in 2010, went on to achieve some notoriety for a series of idiosyncratic judgements which were a mixture of the wildly liberal and the insanely harsh. He also contributed to tabloid newspaper columns and appeared on the Ali G Show.

I can’t believe I have much in common with Justice Pickles, but I did think of him this week. When the news was announced of the death of Caroline Flack it initially meant nothing to me because I didn’t know who she was. I have no way of knowing how much that shocks you and please feel free to tell me by leaving a comment. All the same, a few words in my defence.

The Saturday night light entertainment shows of which she was a star are unknown territory for me. That’s not because I’m listening to baroque madrigals when they are broadcast but because I’ll be on my way home from football and there’s a very good chance I will have loitered in licensed premises on the way. When it comes to Love Island, I don’t believe that I am the target audience and everything that I obliquely know about it from afar seems to be both distasteful and slightly alarming.

None of which is to say that I feel anything but sympathy for a young woman who, far from being made happy by being a glittering star shining in the public firmament, had become a fractured, tortured and unhappy soul. History is littered with denizens of screen, stage and recording studio whose glamorous public personae have been at horrible odds with a gnawing wretchedness away from the spotlight. And in the modern era, the need to be permanently accessible and visible, along with an apparent need to share one’s passing thoughts instantaneously with the rest of the world, has made matters much worse.

One thing is for certain: the genie of social media is not going back into the bottle any time soon. It has now soaked itself into the habits and conduct of a generation of digital natives, permeating every aspect of  our lives. Given its ubiquity, we need to ask ourselves a tricky question: how do we educate ourselves, and, in particular, our young people, to understand this new literacy of social media and instant communication?

If we’re going to address this, there must be a recognition that we’re hobbling ourselves from the start. As an initial example, try searching through the national curriculum for the term ‘social media’. It makes a couple of brief appearances in peripheral areas, but you have to work hard to find it. This, in itself, is part of a deep-seated and historical mistrust of any kind of media studies by the political and journalistic right. It was the particular bete noire of Michael Gove and his then aide-de-camp at the Department of Education, Dominic Cummings, both of whom dedicated themselves to ridding the system of what they dubbed ‘easy subjects’. It’s worth thinking about why they found this one quite so irksome.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to Shakespeare to do the work for me from time to time. In The Tempest, a bunch of refined Europeans wash up on the shore of a remote island and there they find the savage, bestial native – Caliban. Caliban grows to despise the newcomers who gradually oppress and patronise him. But in doing so, they inadvertently teach him their language. In time, Caliban revels in this and is able to taunt his captors by telling them that they ‘taught him language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse’. The message is clear – for goodness sake, don’t let the natives understand what we’re up to, otherwise we’ll all be in the mire. If they know how this media stuff works, they’ll see through us in an instant.

This government, along with its predecessors, likes to appoint ‘tsars’ and talk about ‘wars’ on things – drugs, homelessness, poverty – and right at the top of that list of priorities we find, entirely properly, illiteracy. It is imperative to send children into the world able to read and write. But now we face a new literacy, one that starts from the moment an infant learns to swipe at a black screen or sees its parent more preoccupied with a cat doing a gambol than cooing at its own, real-life offspring. Teaching this new literacy needs to start early – very early.

Think it can’t be done? In Finland, ever ahead in the educational stakes, primary schools already have lessons on how to detect fake news. Thinks it’s an unnecessary diversion? The UK’s children are deemed among the unhappiest in the developed world by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Mental Health Foundation reports an ‘unprecedented’ rise in the instance of problems in 15-year-old girls. The Children’s Society reports on the damage done to young people’s self-esteem by the need to constantly measure up to images on social media. Conducting even the most rudimentary search about sexting among children reveals a chilling acceptance of its prevalence. The question is not whether it can be done, but how on earth could we ignore it.

Caroline Flack appeared to live in the maelstrom of Twitter, Instagram and the voraciousness of the gutter press for vile suppositions about people’s private thoughts and personal lives. It is a world that must have contributed to her sad, tragic death. The world of reality TV, its stars and the social media whirlwind they generate, should be a harmless diversion that flickers for a moment and then evaporates into the ether. It’s not. It lingers, it stinks and grows and feeds on itself and, unless we inure them against it, seeps into the thinking of our children and normalizes the extraordinary.

Fake news, fake images, fake ambitions. It might be in the interests of the unscrupulous – the newspaper owners, the social media barons, fretful government advisers – to allow people to confuse this rubbish with reality. They remain happy to encourage this new illiteracy. It’s up to all of us to let them know we’ll call it out and name them as the grubby villains, preying on people’s insecurities and worries, that they are.

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