War on Words

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Philip Pullman on reading and democracy. This is a long quote, but I recommend the whole article:

I start from the position that theocracy is one of the least desirable of all forms of political organisation, and that democracy is a good deal better. But the real division is not between those states that are secular, and therefore democratic, and those that are religious, and therefore totalitarian. I think there is another fault line that is more fundamental and more important than religion. You don't need a belief in God to have a theocracy.


So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one. It places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.

And we become better readers: we learn different ways to read. We learn to distinguish degrees of irony or implication; we pick up references and allusions we might have missed before; we learn to judge the most fruitful way to read this text (as myth, perhaps) or that (as factual record); we become familiar with the strengths and duplicities of metaphor, we know a joke when we see one, we can tell poetry from political history, we can suspend our certainties and learn to tolerate the vertigo of difference.

Of course, democracies don't guarantee that real reading will happen. They just make it possible. Whether it happens or not depends on schools, among other things. And schools are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, not least that exerted by governments eager to impose "targets", and cut costs, and teach only those things that can be tested. One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.


1 Comment

I don't think the christian right is responsible for the state of public education. That's been in secular hands for awhile. Pullman doesn't know the U.S. Smug assumptions and square peg in a round hole.

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This page contains a single entry by was published on November 5, 2004 10:08 PM.

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