Posts Tagged ‘Literacy’

Is Trump Barely Able to Read?

February 6, 2017

My thanks to Joanna, one of the long-time commenters on this blog, for posting this in one of her comments.

In this piece from the David Pakman Show, Pakman and one of his producers, Pat, discuss the considerable evidence that Trump is functionally barely literate. There are clips of Mark Fisher, an American journalist, discussing how he asked Trump if he was preparing for the presidency by reading the biographies of the great American presidents. Trump said something about reading one about Nixon, and another, but Fisher himself doubted he had ever read a book from cover to cover. Trump also said that he had never read a biography, but regretted this. Visitors to Trump have remarked that there weren’t any books on his desk, or on the shelves at his home or indeed anywhere else. Jeffrey Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, stated that he didn’t believe Trump had ever read a book since he was in school. Washington insiders have said that The Donald actually has difficulty reading the documents and executive orders placed in front of him. He usually just scans the first page. Further evidence for this comes from clips from a court case, in which the opposition lawyer asks Drumpf to read a lease. Trump’s own lawyer objects to it, and Trump looks it over, remarks on its length, and then proceeds to give a summary of what’s on the page. Apparently, he doesn’t even send his tweets himself. He dictates them to a secretary in the next room, and she sends them for him. There’s also a clip with the writers from the comedy show, Saturday Night Live, in which they talk about how Trump had difficulty reading the scripts when he was guest host. And it’s also been said that the reason why Trump watches so much television, and gets so much of his information from it, is because he can’t or doesn’t read books and papers. There’s also a clip, which shows Trump very obviously not using a teleprompter at one of his rallies. Pakman argues that this isn’t because he’s particularly keen to speak ad lib. It’s because he has difficulty reading what’s on there.

Pakman’s producer, Pat, finally makes the point here that what’s shocking isn’t Trump’s inability to read, but his lack of intellectual curiosity. He doesn’t even send away for talking books, so he can hear things read to him.

This is truly astonishing. And frightening. People have been making jokes since forever and a day about the stupidity of politicians, but many have been people of real intellectual distinction. Churchill wrote his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. JFK apparently could write a sentence of Latin with one hand while writing a sentence in Greek with the other. Even Nixon was no intellectual slouch. He was crooked and a monstrous imperialist thug, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of untold millions in the Vietnam War and Fascist coups across the world, and he really wasn’t intellectually capable of being president. But he wasn’t thick either. Bill Clinton was far from stupid, though he was also responsible for some of the worst policies passed by an American president, such as gutting further what remained of the American welfare system after Reagan, quite apart from highly questionable foreign policy decisions.

On the other hand, there are a long line of chiefly Republican presidents, who have been suspected of being thick and incompetent. Like Ronald Reagan, even before the poor fellow was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Not The Nine O’clock News sang songs about his epic stupidity. There was a long-running sketch on Spitting Image, in which his aides go in search of his missing brain. Then in the early part of this century, he was followed into the Oval Office by George Dubya, who had been an illiterate drunk smashed out of his skull on recreational chemicals. Dubya at least gave up the booze and drugs, and was credited as reading. He still struck everyone as being so stupid, that when one person made up the rumour that he only had an IQ of 85, it was widely believed. And at one point it looked like America would get a female vice-president in the shape of Sarah Palin, who has a reputation for monumental stupidity. One American commenter described his candidacy for the presidency or vice-presidency to a ‘post turtle’. What’s a post turtle? He explained that if you go to the Deep South, ever so often on the roads you see a turtle stuck on a fence post. The turtle’s got no right to be there, doesn’t know how it got there, and you don’t know what moron put it there. And that summed up Palin’s bid for supreme power.

And now we have Donald Trump, a sexist, misogynist, islamophobic Fascist, a narcissistic megalomaniac, who seems unable to read or comprehend the documents put in front of him.

He is massively unfit for office, and the fact that he’s in it points to a deeply troubling strand of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party. The late comedian Bill Hicks used to joke that there was a streak of anti-intellectualism in America, and that it began the same year Reagan was elected. He had a point. Reagan got into power by presenting the image of a down-home ordinary bloke, offering his folksy wisdom in place of the complicated and simply wrong ideas offered by those affecting to be cleverer than the rest of us. And this is a powerfully attractive approach. No-one likes the feeling that they’re being condescended to by someone impressed with their own intelligence, or being treated with contempt. And the right, both in America and in Britain, try to capitalise on this anti-intellectualism. You think of all the times the Tories have tried to persuade the public that you don’t need to know about fancy economic theories to understand the economy, just commonsense household management. Left-wing economists have tried to point out that, in fact, you do need to understand economics as it is definitely not like balancing a household budget. But still they carry on, using the metaphor of household budgeting to justifying cutting services and privatising the NHS.

And now Trump, who appears to be barely literate, is in the White House. Pakman points out that it seems that Trump spoke at the level of a fourth grade schoolboy, not because he was trying to talk to ordinary Americans at their level, but because his reading level is that of a fourth grade schoolboy. It’s been said that politician is the one job that doesn’t require qualifications. Well, intelligence doesn’t guarantee that someone will make the right decisions. But in a complex world, in which power relationships between countries are so delicate that a misstep could start an international incident or even another war, we do need intellectual ability in our leaders and their advisers. We need politicos, who have the ability to obtain the knowledge of world affairs they need, not just from the broadcast news, but from foreign policy documents, even simply from reading the papers.

Trump seems incapable of this, and it puts us all in danger. He really does need to go.

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Gove and 19th Century British Education Provision

March 29, 2014

The Conservative Party Annual Conference

Michael Gove contemplating the government’s destruction of British state education

Unreasoning nostalgia is a British disease,

– Jon Downes and the Amphibians from Outer Space

Earlier this week the NUT staged a one-day strike against the government’s reforms of British schools. As with the rest of Conservative policy, this essentially consists in preparing the system for further privatisation and lowering wages and conditions. They also have their sights set on lowering standards as well. Taking their cue from the assumption of ignorant bar-room bores everywhere, the Tories have the attitude that just about anyone, or almost anyone, can teach without actually needing to be taught how. They are therefore trying to pass legislation to allow graduates to teach in schools without needing to have a teaching qualification first.

I did my first degree at a teacher-training college that also took ordinary degree students. The trainee teachers I knew were conscientious and worked extremely hard, both academically on their specialist subjects, and in the class-room during teaching practice. Often they were put in front of classes that could be difficult, stopping fights between pupils and sometimes with the threat of violence from parents. While there’s a lot of debate just how much of the theory of teaching and child development is relevant – the theories of Piaget have been extensively critiqued and rejected – it is nevertheless not an easy profession by any means. Teachers certainly need good training in how to teach, as well as what. All this will be undermined by Gove’s reforms.

Modern Conservatism is based on the view that laissez-faire, private industry is always best, and so looks back with nostalgia on the 19th century, when Britain dominated the world, we had an empire and industry was expanding. It was also an age of poverty, hunger, disease and overcrowding. And rather than being great, Britain in this respect had one of the worst education systems in western Europe.

France

In France, plans had been drawn up for a national system of primary, secondary and university education as long ago as 1806 under Napoleon. In practice, the regime got only as far as founding the lycees, the boarding schools for the elite. Under the education act of !833 drawn up by the French minister, Guizot, an impressive system of primary education was established. All communes were required to set up schools, which would provide education for local boys free of charge. The communes that could not afford to do so were to be given funding from their department, or, failing, that an annual grant from the Ministry of Public Instruction. As a result, in the thirteen years from 1834 to 1847 the number of primary schools in La Patrie increased from 33,695 to 43,514. By 1849 there were 3 1/2 million children attending primary school. Girl’s schools received much less funding, but nevertheless a law 1836 extended the 1933 Act to provide for schools for girls.

The French educational system was further reformed in 1863 under Napoleon’s minister for public instruction, Victor Duruy. Duruy was the Republican son of a worker in the Gobelins tapestry factory. He proposed to Napoleon III a system for the effective abolition of illiteracy, funding increases for secondary education, and increases in teachers’ salaries. Primary education was made compulsory, and a broader curriculum introduced for secondary schools. In 1866 nearly 66,000 pupils attended secondary school. The state also spent large sums on teachers’ salaries and in establishing good school libraries. In Matthew Arnold’s words, the French education system after Guizot had

given to the lower classes, to the body of the common people, a self-respect, an enlargement of spirit, a consciousness of counting for something in their country’s action, which has raised them in the scale of humanity.

Germany

Prussia had a ministry of public instruction and a system of local school boards from 1817 onwards. By the mid-19th century throughout all the German states primary education was compulsory. In Saxony, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Baden and Prussia after 1857 parents had to send their children to the local state school. The age when children started school varied from state to state from five to eight years. In some parts of Germany school attendance was compulsory for a further eight years, so that the school leaving age was the same a century later. Unfortunately, education suffered through the use of child labour and widespread poverty, which took children out of the class room.

By 1837 Prussia already had a system of 50 gymnasia, set up to teach the children of the elite from 16 to 19. The curriculum was broader than that in France, and included philosophy, history, geography, arithmetic and geometry, as well as drawing and playing a musical instrument.

Austria

Under the liberal prime minister Auersperg in 1869 education became compulsory for all children from six to fourteen years of age. It has been seen by Harry Hearder, in his Europe in the 19th Century, 1830-1880, as more advanced than the British educational system introduced a year later. (p. 386). The parts of Italy under Austrian rule also benefited from this increase in education. In 1856 Lombardy possessed 4, 427 primary schools.

Switzerland and the Netherlands

The best schools in Europe were those in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Primary education had been made compulsory in most Swiss cantons in the 1830s, and Matthew Arnold considered Swiss schools superior to the French, with the schools in Aargau the very best in Europe.

In the Netherlands a system of state supervision of education had been established in 1806. Dutch schools were hygienic, with well-trained teachers, industrious and happy children, complete religious toleration and no corporal punishment.

Britain

There were a number of schools giving some form of education. These included the Dame Schools, in which an old woman kept a class of children quiet while their parents worked and the charity and Sunday schools. These were essentially religious in nature, and although there were 1 1/2 million pupils in Sunday schools in the 1830s, their pupils were not taught to write or do sums. There result was that there were high rates of illiteracy. By 1851 the literacy rate for men was about 69.3 per cent, and for women 51 per cent.

Under Dr James Kay-Shuttleworth in 1840 schools receiving state grants were obliged to adhere to certain standards, and in 1856 the Department of Education was set up. Nevertheless, a national system of education did not exist until the education act of 1870.

The children of the upper classes attended the grammar and public schools. There was, however, no national system of universal secondary education until 1880, or really, before the 20th century.

University Attendance in England, France, Germany and German Austria

The English universities were intended to produce a small, educated elite, unlike those in France, Italy, German Austria and Germany, which aimed at producing a larger cultured or professional class. As a result, in the 19th century far fewer people in England had the benefit of a university education. In France 1 in 1,900 citizens attended uni. In Italy, this was 1 in 2,200. In Germany and German-speaking Austria, it was 1 in 2,600. In Britain less than half as many had a university education one in 5,800 men.

British Education Dominated by Conservative Aristocratic Bias

Hearder therefore says of the British education system that it suffered from a narrowly aristocratic attitude. If the English upper class was as well educated as that of any other in Europe, the rest of the population remained wretchedly ignorant and neglected. (p. 388).

This attitude still persists in contemporary Tory attitude to education. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are Toffs, who seem intent on pricing higher education out of the grasp of the lower middle and working classes with their raising of tuition fees. The educational reforms seem designed to wreck state education, leaving it purely run for the profit of private companies and unable to compete with the private schools. This seems partly intended to allow the wealthy to continue to the enjoy their educational and social privileges without having to worry about competition from the poorer children of the state sector.

And supporting this assault on state education is the popular belief, at least amongst some of the electorate, that this must raise standards because private is automatically better, as demonstrated by British imperial and industrial greatness during the 19th century. Britain, however, does not compare well in the sphere of mass education during the 19th century. The state systems of many nations, especially France, appear far better. If we genuinely care about giving a good education to our children, we should be looking to them, not back to a mythical age of imperial glory that promotes an attitude of indifference or active hostility to genuine, popular, state education.