National | Education

We were never good at reading and counting when it came to racism

OPINION: We think we’re smarter than those who came after us but the truth is we are always just as stupid as our forebears. It’s our kids’ world: our perennial mistake is thinking we understand it better than they do.

International studies show that reading, writing and counting have apparently been on the slide for at least a couple of decades in basic democratic, market-economy countries like ours.

Whatever is happening to education in Aotearoa now, what I do know is the system has discriminated against Māori kids for a long time. The data is so clear that I’m starting to think we’ve always had an overarching literacy and numeracy problem. We can’t read and count the evidence before us, and we never could.

If we focus on literacy, the 2019 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement found that by Year 8, Māori students are on average more than a year behind non-Māori in reading and writing. This as they are entering secondary education.

Māori learning is delayed by systemic racism at one end of life’s conveyor belt while at the other, it spits us out first to the grave (by seven years on average!).

In this context, that any Pākehā teachers might actually complain about how put-upon they are by a woke teaching system is outrageous. My suggestion to them is to stop moaning and get teaching.

On the hamster wheel of decline

I mean, it’s a shame that last century this very same education system tried to kill off te reo Māori me ōna tikanga (the Māori language and its living, breathing customs) because by now we’d have a nation of hyper-literate innovators with a deep knowledge and respect for the thinkers and wisdom of the past.

Oratory and by extension written skills would be flourishing. We’d be leading the world.

Instead, according to the same study, only about 35% of students in total were at or above the basic writing curriculum level by Year 8.

On one hand, this doesn’t surprise me. Our skills as a nation lie in our proud colonial ability to be inarticulate. The French have postmodernism; the Americans jazz, Westerns. We have Grizz Wylie. The Briscoes Lady is our Sartre.

On the other hand, we’ve been told that we’ve been getting worse (overall) at reading and writing for my whole life. We’ve been on the hamster wheel of decline for generations now and all we’ve done is succeed in collectively failing-on-the-spot. According to popular wisdom we should be communicating in grunts, this column typed out furiously by a roomful of chimps.

Failing to keep up

I’m not convinced that overall our kids are failing, so much as we’re simply failing to keep up with them.

Since the end of the first decade of this century in particular (which coincidentally coincides with the biggest drop in “literacy” between 2009 and 2012), the world has spun off its analogue axis. We Generation Xers are now zombie Boomers. We just don’t realise it yet.

We plugged our kids into a wide digital world with all its mayhem and beauty and violence, and left them to it.

Look at your child and know for certain that their life is or will be broader, more complex, sophisticated, emotionally dangerous, vastly cooler and simultaneously stupider than ours ever was.

They are busy consuming and creating content made for and by a global audience. At 15, we were compiling mix tapes of songs recorded off FM radio. We’d hand over cassettes in consensual analogue exchanges with people we fancied. Frankly we were lame, but I guess at least we had higher literacy averages.

We have to hand over the torch sometime, and maybe while we try to avoid literapocalypse we shouldn’t think we were any better at understanding each other.