A shock-horror headline emblazoned on the front page of The Dominion Post‘s June 23-24 weekend edition asked, “Are we raising a nation of dunces?”
“Some kids are starting school unable to name a colour or even string a sentence together,” the article began, as though this were news. It isn’t.
It’s also not news that some kids still can’t string a sentence together when they leave school.
An article in the Sunday Star-Times of June 25 then reported, “Hopes of an economic boom driven by a highly-skilled Kiwi workforce could be dashed by the number of illiterate and innumerate adults. One in five students is leaving school without qualifications. Some struggle so badly they cannot fill out the unemployment benefit form.”
Plus ça change.
In 1996, the Adult Literacy in New Zealand survey of adults aged 16-65 found 66% of Maori and 41% of non-Maori were below the minimum level of literacy required to “meet the complex demands of everyday life and work.”
A 2006 survey’s results were no better: it found 43 per cent of adults with some sort of literacy issue, and half the population with numeracy difficulties.
Here’s the Dominion Post of February 15, 2011:
“Some teachers are so lacking in literacy and numeracy skills that they cannot write adequate reports or do primary-level maths, secondary principals say. … Anecdotal evidence from principals included teachers being unable to write reports, having poor reading comprehension, making basic punctuation, spelling and grammar errors, and being unable to help pupils’ reading.”
The country is now caught up in a vicious circle arising from decades of state-mandated dumbing down in the education system. This process has faithfully replicated on state (and now private) television—as I’ve written in my article, The Rice for the Putts. Linguistic cretins are being hired for on-air jobs not just in spite of being unable to speak but because they’re unable to speak.
Masterton Primary School principal Sue Walters says, “We get a lot of kids who come to school who just can’t form proper sentences. They have very limited vocabulary and some are operating at a 3-year-old’s level. You can’t teach kids to read and write if they can’t speak.” Well, TV reporters in their 20s are speaking like 5-year-olds—with the active connivance of their bosses!
Massey University senior lecturer in speech and language therapy Elizabeth Doell says at the age of 5, a child should be able to construct a reasonably complex sentence, and have a certain level of vocabulary. But this is often not the case, she observes, and an urgent inquiry is needed to get to the bottom of the problem. “I don’t think we truly know the extent of it.”
Here’s the bottom of the problem: the deliberate inculcation of mediocrity by the state over generations, manifest in the Look-Say method of the teaching of reading and an egalitarian hostility to speech standards rooted in the belief that polished, clear speech is unacceptably “posh.” The resultant oral and written ineptitude have fed upon and reinforced each other.
Given this part of a letter I received last year from then-Education Minister Anne Tolley, I’m not hopeful of an imminent reversal of the current collapse into cretinism:
Although there may be variation from school to school in the approaches they take to the teaching of reading, the majority of New Zealand schools follow the Ministry of Education guidance outlined in the key reference texts Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4 and Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8. In these publications teachers are urged to use a range of instructional strategies as they help students engage with meaningful texts. Such a balanced programme would include some phonics work, some use of known words and many other ways for readers to unlock and make sense of texts. [Translation: Look-Say and politically correct BS rule.]
I am interested in your observations about the speech of some of our young people. As you will know, language use, including oral language is not static. Our parents may well have mourned the decline they perceived in our speech patterns and pronunciation. In this age of technology, young people now hear a wide range of spoken language.
Sometimes they may even deliberately use patterns different from those of their parents as a mark of their identity and individuality. Such is the nature of fluid and flexible language use as we all strive to make ourselves understood in the global world of today. [Translation: kids indeed speak as though they were morons. That’s the way we want it: everyone sounding equally uneducated. For good Orwellian measure we’ll call it “identity” and “individuality” precisely because it’s the opposite of those things.]
Normally I’d advocate simply retrieving the thing from the clutches of the state and letting market forces generate a drive for remedial excellence. But all of society is now so steeped in barbarism that the private sector too is zombified. The state must act urgently to stop and reverse the rot it started and sponsored to such devastating effect. Hand in hand with the overdue revival of grammar, spelling and punctuation that is already supposed to be happening, the state must restore to phonics its former hegemony, and it must introduce speech-training into the curriculum, both for pupils and teachers.
What stake do I as a libertarian have in this matter? To quote Ms Walters again, “You can’t teach kids to read and write if they can’t speak.” And in a nation of inarticulate illiterates, liberty doesn’t stand a chance. In the domain of dunces, demagogues dictate.