Thus says Bevis – or it could be Butt-head. You will have to imagine the snigger as he says it – whichever one of them it was.
I do like words. I love words. They are tools and sometimes weapons, used to do good and harm.
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword.
To me, the goals of literacy and the learning of English should be to understand how to use language and how to recognise and be wary of its abuse. I’m not talking F-words. I’m talking about how clever people – politicians or journalists, for instance – use words to manipulate or deceive. To me, Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus is a prime example. Never mind if he lied about the money that goes to the EU. The carefully worded slogan hints at funding the NHS rather than the EU, without promising that he would actually implement the redirection of funds. I believe many people read it as, “If we leave the EU the NHS will get more money.”
I taught Functional Skills for many years, and I love how it teaches the identification of bias and inference, fact versus opinion rather than the identification of techniques Dickens uses to present the character of Pip in Great Expectations. Yes, I’d love new generations to grow up appreciating quality literature; but the reality seems to be that they are growing up loathing Pip, while still being vulnerable to manipulation by twisters of words.
Words are also the gateway to knowledge, which in turn leads to better health, better job prospects, better relationships. In A Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present lifts his cloak to show Scrooge two children – Want and Ignorance. Of the two, says the Ghost, Ignorance is the more to be feared.
Martin Newell, performance poet, quoted this passage today at a rally in Chelmsford to protest at the proposed cuts to the library service in Essex. A third of the county’s libraries are threatened with closure. Newell himself grew up as a forces child, his family constantly moving. Taking books with them was not an option, so one of the first things they did in a new area was to enroll in a local library. Libraries were vital for him for learning to read. Backing him up, a local headteacher spoke about the importance of libraries as spaces for young people to study and revise for their exams. He talked, too, of a study that shows we retain more and lose ourselves more in a text if it is a physical copy.
I do hope that doesn’t mean you, dear reader, will skim this text then forget about it. Because library services across the UK and indeed across Europe are threatened with closure as councils seek to save money. If library closures go ahead, we lose so much. We lose books for our little children to learn to read with. We lose safe places for our older children to linger in, developing a love of reading. We lose knowledge for our teenagers to grow with. We lose a resource for those who can’t afford new books. We lose access to materials that will inform and enlighten.
We lose a resource that helps us open our minds to the world: to say no to manipulation; no to half-truths; no to prejudice.