Saturday 21 September 2019

Illiteracy shames us, in whatever language

If the Government is to tackle illiteracy it needs to be honest about the extent of the problem, writes Emer O'Kelly

THE Irish Language Commissioner, Sean O Cuirreain, has written to all 226 members of the Oireachtas appealing for more use of Irish in debates in both houses.

It is, as he points out, our first official language. And of course, the majority of our TDs and Senators would claim competence in speaking it. One of the exceptions is Michael Ring of Fine Gael, who admits his knowledge of Irish is extremely inadequate, although he has recently been appointed his party's spokesman for Gaeltacht Affairs.

As far as I know, there is no member of either house who would own up to having a very limited ability to read and write English -- although it is frequently and painfully obvious that the number of members who can SPEAK it articulately, simply, accurately, fluently and clearly, is fairly limited.

The Commissioner's letter will have hit the pigeonholes of articulate and inarticulate members alike on the very same day as Sean Haughey -- the Minister of State for the euphemistically described "life-long learning" -- said he would be happy if the Government targets for reducing illiteracy among Irish adults were met.

Ten years ago, nearly a quarter of the adult population in this country were functionally illiterate. That didn't mean that they were unable, or had no desire, to read Sartre, Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce, or even Roddy Doyle or Cecelia Ahern.

It meant they stood helplessly in the streets of our towns and cities, unable to read the destination signs on the buses.

It meant that as parents they peered doubtfully at packets of medication, unable to read the directions which told them the correct dosage to give to their children, or more seriously, what would amount to a dangerous overdose.

More than half-a-million Irish people between the ages of 16 and 64 suffered under this huge disadvantage. It is a disadvantage which psychologists acknowledge can induce states of helpless rage leading to uncontrollable fits of violence. (Indeed, the percentage of inmates in all of our prisons who are unable to read and write is way above the national average.)

The horrifying figure of 24 per cent adult illiteracy was first published in an OECD survey in 1996, and put us close to the bottom of the international league. (In Europe, only Poland scored worse than we did.)

But in the months prior to the publishing of the survey results, government ministers were at pains to deny the figures which were already filtering through.

When the results of the survey were published, they said, the leaked figures would be proved wrong. And they were: the figures were far worse than those that had been leaked.

But instead of putting their hands up and admitting this appalling failure of the education system over several generations, our politicians did their usual trick of trying to wriggle off the hook.

The figures, they tried to suggest, weren't all that bad ... comparatively speaking ... in reality ... when examined ... etc., etc.

Nor were the teachers any better at accepting responsibility for their outrageous failures. It was all to do with the system. No fault of theirs, you see. Our teachers were the best in Europe, if not in the world.

It was eerily reminiscent of the Charles Haughey mantra of Ireland having "the best educated young people in Europe".

What he meant by that, of course, was that he was manipulating educational standards downwards -- so more and more people could be pushed through the system to bolster the numbers of people qualifying at third level, and thereby bolster his own monstrous political ego on the international stage.

Ten years down the road we should be able to look at an education system which has come to grips with such a betrayal of basic civil rights. We should be able to point at ALL of our primary schools and say with pride and truth that no child slips through the system, unless mentally handicapped, without being able to read and write by the time he or she reaches secondary level.

We should be saying that we put our hands up 10 years ago, acknowledged the total inequity and inadequacy of our basic education system, reformed it fundamentally, and weeded out the lousy teachers from the competent.

Instead, youngsters are still pouring on to the streets, unemployed and unemployable, condemned to lives of subterfuge and shame: condemned to join the ranks between the ages of 16 and 64 who can't function in their daily lives.

The politicians have been telling us for the past 10 years that they are tackling the problem of our massive illiteracy rates (you know, those rates that didn't really exist). When the OECD findings were issued, a million was being spent annually to tackle adult illiteracy. Last year, €23m was spent. That's €23m on tackling a problem that is still being added to by the same education system as was being operated a decade ago.

Sean Haughey, however, is delighted with himself and his government; he thinks the measures are adequate, the pace of reform and help acceptable.

At the rate we're going (this politically acceptable rate), we'll have reduced the illiteracy rate among adults to 300,000 by 2016.

That's a realistic aim, according to the Minister. It's realistic, he suggests, because "huge commitments" have been made to the literacy programme. And of course, he added (he was speaking at the start of National Adult Literacy Awareness Week, by the way), we had started from a very low base.

Was that the same base that his colleague Willie O'Dea denied was a reality when he upbraided me in print 10 years ago for drawing attention to our shameful figures, saying they would be found to be exaggerated?

And of course, the 300,000 adult illiterates by 2016 is the best-case scenario; the likelihood is that the figure will be half-a-million, or 10 per cent of the population. One in every 10 people unable to read and write after 20 years of supposedly intensive efforts to eradicate adult illiteracy?

Yes, the Commissioner for the Irish language is perfectly correct in pointing out that English is only the second official language of the State -- but however unpalatable and politically incorrect it may be to say so, it remains the only ESSENTIAL language of the State.

Irish is a cultural asset and part of our heritage. And as part of our heritage, we are unwilling to acknowledge that very few of our people actually have a working knowledge of how to read and write it.

That's a shame.

But it's not nearly such a shame as denying every child in the land the right to leave primary school with basic literacy skills in the language of daily life in their country.

And I for one would far prefer to see the politicians thoroughly ashamed of our illiteracy figures, rather than getting hot under the collar about having more debates in Irish in the Dail and Seanad.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss