THE PIAAC RESULTS: NO SURPRISES… (ON THE UNVEILING OF SPAIN’S GENERAL ILLITERACY)

A couple of days ago the PIAAC results were published. This is a test designed to measure the educational competences of adults (16-65) in the 23 countries that are members of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). The Spanish Government’s webpage summarises the catastrophe (see https://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/ServiciosdePrensa/NotasPrensa/MinisteriorEducacionCulturayDeporte/2013/081013InformePIAAC). Spanish adults occupy the second last position in reading comprehension (Italy has the honour of being number 23). My fellow Spanish citizens can read only at level 2 out of 5, with great difficulties to extrapolate conclusions from a text and to follow the content in those of a certain depth, like El Quijote (this must be a joke as in order to be able to read Cervantes’ book level 5 skills are required). The best readers are the Japanese, the Finns and the Dutch. An added humiliation is the fact that secondary school students of Japan, Holland and Australia are better readers than Spanish university students.

If anyone in Spain finds these results surprising then s/he has indeed very poor reading comprehension skills as regards the lamentable situation of the country and its so-called culture. Now try to tell kids below 16 that they should be better students.

Although PIAAC covers adults educated between 1956 and 2000, the Spanish Government blames their Socialist predecessors for the fiasco. They implemented LOGSE in 1990, the legislation that reformed the old Ley General de Educación 1970 act (under which I was myself educated –with many deficiencies). I’ll remind you that we used to take primary education up to the age of 14 and then opt for secondary school or professional training, whereas now kids take primary education until the age of 12, then ESO (or junior secondary school) to 16; next comes the choice between higher secondary school (Bachillerato) or professional training. In both cases, 18 is the university entrance age.

I have a clear recollection of how things changed back in 1994, when the first LOGSE students reached university. My slightly older students (I started teaching in 1991) also quickly saw that the new generations lacked their commitment to studying and the preparation that the old COU year gave before university. Since then things have gone downhill, I’m very sorry to say. One example? Well, a French Erasmus student informed my Victorian Literature colleague that since she had already chosen to work on Anne Brontë for her paper, she would not read Oliver Twist. Fancy telling a university Literature teacher this. Now, to my consternation, when I told the anecdote (twice) to my class, hoping they’d be scandalised (or would pretend to be), they were not. I coolly reminded them that their education was not my concern and the sooner they understood they should educate themselves the better. These are students paying very high fees to be educated and I have no idea why they will not make the best of the resources we have to offer.

I think LOGSE was necessary to update the educational system (surely you don’t want 14-year-old workers) but coincided with the beginning of a widespread trend in Spain: the rejection of education. I don’t mean that Spanish people do not want an education, I mean that they prefer instead titles, degrees, certificates. Education is, for me, a much deeper, wider, larger concept which translates into an eagerness to know beyond what is provided in the classroom. Just for the sake of it and also to understand the world we live in. Being learned, though, has no prestige whatsoever in Spain, whether among 16-year-old kids or 65-year-old grandparents, for there is an assumption that an education leads nowhere. This possibly comes from the realisation that a university degree no longer guarantees a job, much less a good job. Also, from something else that is cultural: a distrust, disregard and mockery of anything that leads to thinking (I’m told Philosophy is to be taken out of higher secondary education). I’m sure that in Japan, Finland, Holland this is not the case.

So, the truth is out: we assumed that Spanish adults were all highly literate, young kids the (functional) illiterate ones. Yet it turns out that the whole country is illiterate for actual purposes. What a happy day for a Literature teacher. The solution is obvious: making a collective effort and not just at school. Yet, for that you need to feel the shame which comes out of having your pride hurt and since right now we have no pride left at all because of the crisis, I doubt anyone feels shame. This is what we’ll be stuck in the bottom positions of OECD, as we congratulate ourselves on not being Italian instead of wondering what makes the Japanese such superb readers despite the obvious difficulties of their written language.

Deep, deep sigh…

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2 thoughts on “THE PIAAC RESULTS: NO SURPRISES… (ON THE UNVEILING OF SPAIN’S GENERAL ILLITERACY)

  1. “Being learned, though, has no prestige whatsoever in Spain, whether among 16-year-old kids or 65-year-old grandparents, for there is an assumption that an education leads nowhere. This possibly comes from the realisation that a university degree no longer guarantees a job, much less a good job. Also, from something else that is cultural: a distrust, disregard and mockery of anything that leads to thinking (I’m told Philosophy is to be taken out of higher secondary education).”

    That last line is spot on. As far as I know, a university degree in itself does not guarantee a job anywhere. However, that doesn’t lead other people to think that culture or education are worthless and should be shunned. I hope this doesn’t sound excessively Arnoldian, but if anything, being learned is an essential part of our humanness, and it’s only natural to search for answers and, possibly even more important, to keep asking questions.

    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some very learned and interesting individuals who have never been to university or who dropped out after a short stay. They were far more cultured than most university graduates I know, and that goes to show something you once said about literature that could be applied to culture in general. You told us that what is done in class is just the tip of the iceberg, but that everything else should be done outside. I agree wholeheartedly, but unfortunately, that outlook is still rare around here.

    Another trend I’ve noticed is the disregard for anything that does not hit home or that is seen as “too weird” (in many cases that simply means ‘unknown’ or ‘different’). I understand (and share) the concern with the Spanish Civil War, but what happens in Syria, for example, is also worth our attention. Similarly, a movie that wins an Oscar or a book that makes it to a Sant Jordi stand are not necessarily better or more important than a flick recommended by a Russian blogger or a shoddy paperback unearthed from a dollar bin in a Welsh bookshop.

    I do not know if there is a solution. At any rate, it should start at the roots, with the youngest generations. It’s all a matter of choices and priorities, and although money can certainly help, it is not the be all and end all. I’m not implying that children should cram for hours. On the contrary, they should be outdoors more often, interacting with their peers and exploring the world, so that they are refreshed and ready to study when the time comes. Contact with the outside world also makes them more curious to learn and discover more about it. It saddens me to think that whenever I ask children about their weekends they almost always answer that they’ve spent it playing video games (or something similar that I don’t understand because I might be getting old). Ironically, many people from other countries still see Spain as a bucolic paradise where kids spend hours playing outdoors.

    We should show children how stimulating learning can be and encourage them to pursue it, no matter what others might think. Coming from a family that always told me to stop studying and reading (“lest my head should explode” These very words were used many times!) it has taken me years to realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to know more about everything, even if all that knowledge leads to nothing tangible. Yesterday I went to the hairdresser’s and managed to read Queen Mab and some related essays. I obviously got some odd stares, but while a few years ago they would have made me uncomfortable, I just couldn’t care less yesterday (I’m definitely getting old). I won’t get a promotion or a certificate for reading Shelley, but I had the loveliest of afternoons thanks to his words and learnt a bit more about the world, and that’s all that really matters.

    This leads me to the serious case of “titulitis” that afflicts this country. I understand that German is useful, but taking an intensive course to get an official certificate that proves one’s proficiency should not be given more importance than learning, say, Persian with a native friend, online, or simply with good ol’ textbooks. As for degrees, I’ve never said I’m a “filologa”. I just don’t think that describes me. What I love about other cultures is how flexible they are when it comes to jobs, relationships and many other aspects of life. The world is fluid and we should always “stay hungry, stay foolish,” as Steve Jobs put it back in 2005. I also love what Stephen Fry has to say about it: “We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

    I will probably never have a good job (whatever that’s supposed to mean) but I do know that my life won’t lack beauty and that I will never ever get bored as long as there is a constant supply of new things to learn and discover (and that is something we will always have). Much like other people have inspired me, I would also like to get children excited about culture (including science and the arts). That doesn’t mean my own children, but any that happen to cross my path. It will all be worth it even if only one listens and decides that education is beautiful and loving and pursuing it is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Sorry yet again for the very long rant. You’ve raised an issue that is very close to my heart, so I couldn’t help but say something. Please, keep providing your hungry & foolish readers with food for thought. Blogs like yours help offset the damage that this country’s education system and worst cultural mores are doing to our brains

    SOURCES
    1 https://youtu.be/UF8uR6Z6KLc
    2 https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/jul/20/stephen-fry-bbc-planet-word

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