A culture of reading

2011-07-07 00:00

THERE is a general agreement that the state of the country's education is extremely worrying. Some schools do well, but the overwhelming majority do not. The average performance seems to be poor not only by international standards but by African standards as well.

We know some of the causes of the problem. Probably the most notable is Bantu education, which had a bad effect on standards, morale and work ethic. We know something of what is needed: better leadership in many schools, more dedication among teachers, less bureaucracy among officials, better training.

But perhaps what we need above all — and I say this without blaming or denouncing anyone — are teachers who are enthusiastic about the subjects that they teach, who really love their subjects, and can convey their love and excitement to those whom they teach. It's when pupils enjoy what they are learning, and want to know more, that real learning, real education take place. And in the end an educated person is not merely, not mainly, one who knows a lot of things: he or she is someone who has learned to inquire and to think and to explore mentally.

Education helps one to pass exams and get qualifications. It produces people who are capable and flexible and can perform skilled work, and in this respect it is absolutely necessary for the economy. All this, needless to say, is extremely important. But education goes deeper than this. It enables an individual to become more fully human and humane — to be aware and knowledgeable and to understand the many things that one needs to know in order to lead a thoughtful and sensitive life, to make choices, to realise one's full potential.

And central to the whole process of being educated, of becoming more human and humane, is reading. A school child who reads well and easily, and is able to get thoroughly absorbed by a good book, is well on the way to becoming educated. Of course not all books are particularly good or valuable (though often any reading is better than none), and of course some pupils will read fairly trashy books under the desk when they should be attending to a maths lesson. But in general writing and reading are among the glories of humanity, what puts us in a different league from all other creatures: the ability to set down words, and to comprehend words, whose content can take us in many directions away from and beyond the mere limited physical facts and realities of our existence.

So what the school system needs, what the country as a whole needs, is a culture of reading. I was pleased to see that Chris Ndlela, the new mayor of Msunduzi who was until recently a headmaster, when asked about fancy cars, said: "I am not into boyish stuff, but I am obsessed with reading …" Many teachers will be unable passionately to encourage their pupils to read because they are not great readers themselves. But they should try to change their ways. Reading, of newspapers and magazines, but particularly of good fiction and non-fiction, can often change people's lives. There is so much that one can learn about and think about and get excited about: human beings and human relationships, politics, history, literature, science, technology, economics, psychology, religion, philosophy … The list is almost endless.

Having said all this, I must add that of course reading is today under threat in a way that it wasn't 50 years ago, not only here but in cultures where the reading habit has been pretty well entrenched for a long time. Reading, even at its most enjoyable, requires a certain positive effort. Today's school pupils, and adults too, find themselves enticed by many forms of easy technology: television, cellphones, iPads, computer games. I am not a conservative: all these forms of activity have their value. Television, in both fictional and non-fictional modes (not to mention comedy and quizzes), can be especially illuminating. But nothing can take the place of reading for thorough and deep learning and contemplation.

If our schools become places where people learn to read and to think, our whole society will be transformed.

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