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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The abuses of literacy

One of the books I read over the Easter vacation was A Sort of Clowning: Life and Times 1940-1959 the second volume of Richard Hoggart's autobiography. One of the instructive stories it contains is about an incident of student plagiarism that occurred whilst he was teaching at Rochester in the late 1950s:
"I marked an essay on Yeats which was not only pathetic in its near-illiteracy but plainly full of plagiarisms. The man had been stupid enough to go to the library and copy in a still unformed hand whole paragraphs from different critics. The essay was like a dish made up of elements of haute cuisine embedded in a large inferior hamburger."
The student had no conception of what he had done wrong even after it was explained to him and this lack of insight, Hoggart observes, was not just a personal failing, but, he opines, a direct result of the culture he swam in:
"That young man was baffled not just because he was not very clever but because his culture had not introduced him to  - had positively discouraged him from - the idea of intellectual discrimination, differences in intellectual grasp and ability. He could distinguish a cheap car from a better, and no doubt a good swimmer or runner from a mediocre. He had never been invited to understand that some minds may be better than others. He had been introduced not to the world of ideas but to that of opinions; and manifestly one man's opinions are as good as another's..." 
Essentially Hoggart's student lived in a pick-and-mix world in which scholarship was about assembling various  nuggets of  fact and judgment in a heap. How much worse things have become in the age of cut-and-paste. The best and worst that has been thought can now be  rapidly excerpted and arranged on the page by the most minimally literate with just the slightest matrix of discrimination.
Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy was the first sociology book I ever read. I remember as a sixth-former seeing it on a bookshelf and being puzzled by the title. Wasn't the use of literacy obvious? Apparently the original title was The Abuses of Literacy, but the publisher didn't like that. Nowadays to shift units a publisher would probably force him to call it something like: Why reading makes us all dummer or Why the media makes everything shite
Rereading Uses I'm struck by how little I must have understood of it. First published in 1957 the world Hoggart is describing in the first part of the book is mainly the working class culture of the North of England in the 1920s. That was already half a century ago in the 1970s when I first read him yet I could still identify at least some elements in the attitudes and the pattern of feelings he described that were true of my family and our neighbours. It  was the autobiographical parts that appealed to me the most; that and his description of the uprooted and anxious sensibility of the scholarship boy, an alien in some respects to his family but equally an outsider even in provincial intellectual middle-class circles.
The critique of  what in retrospect was just the beginning of the mass communications revolution and its effects on the cultural life of ordinary people passed right over my head. Of course Uses contains just the merest hints of what was to come and rereading it reminds one of how much the cultural revolution of the sixties changed everything - some things for the better, some for the worse. Where he is spot on is in his delineation of the self-serving cultivation of a form of top down populism among cultural elites (especially when they own or work for TV stations and newspapers) that legitimates a 'give em what they want' form of cultural democracy and the simultaneous disparagement of any attempt at cultural discrimination as mandarin elitism. Well, when advertising revenues are at stake they would say that wouldn't they?

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