We have been in Queensland for three weeks and thoroughly enjoying the warm, lazy days. I have had two books on the go – yes, I know what you are thinking, but just wait. The very long The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (very, very long) and Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. (I’m sure lots of Cats have read Herman’s book, but for some reason it has stayed on my shelf, unread.)
Anyway, one of the things that really intrigued me was the incredibly high rate of literacy among the Scots so early on. The Education Act 1696 meant that all parishes had a school with a qualified teacher. (Note qualified meant university qualified and all lectures at the time were conducted in Latin.) Mind you, the parishes were not given any resources to pay for the school or the teacher – this was worked out at a local level.
As Herman sums up:
Scotland’s literacy rate would be higher than that of any other country by the end of the eighteenth century. An English observer noted with astonishment that ‘in the low country of Scotland … the poorest are, in general, taught to read’. In 1790, nearly every eight-year-old in Cleish, in Kinross-shire, could read and read well. By one estimate male literacy stood at around 55 per cent by 1720; by 1750 it may have stood as high as 75 per cent, compared with only 53 per cent in England. It would not be until the 1880s that the English would finally catch up with their northern neighbours.
While one of the motivations of the Education Act was to ensure that everyone could read the Bible – a reflection of the power of the Kirk in Scotland – people’s tastes didn’t end there. A patchwork of subscription-based lending libraries – again, no taxpayer funding – sprung up and, in turn, paper making, printing, publishing and other allied activities flourished in Scotland.
I was reminded of this when we had lunch with one of our friends up here. He has done lots of things, but had initially been trained as a quantity surveyor. He volunteered to help out with one of the school-based vocational education courses being put together by a number of the local high schools.
Always one for precision – which is just as well in quantity surveying – he told the students that he would set a high bar. They were given some practical experience with the latest surveying equipment.
But here’s the thing: in a group of 15 children, there were two outstanding one – a girl and a boy. Most of the others struggled to the point that they could not transcribe a number from the display screen of the machine onto paper. You might expect an eight year old to do this – these kids were 15 or 16 years of age.
This rather begs the question: what have the schools being doing all this time? To be sure, the kids in the vocational education stream are probably not the most scholastic, but what hope have they got if they cannot even undertake a simple task like this. (Some were embarrassed, others laughed it off – these ones may well end up in jail.)