Which would you rather your children reading, Finnegans Wake or the instructions on the side of a packet of instant noodles? Which would you rather your children doing, checking Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, or playing poker on the internet using your credit card? Who would you rather them being friends with, a gang of tattooed bikers with criminal records and drug problems, or the local branch of Conservative Future?
Don’t answer that last one.
You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more – if it were Twilight or Middlemarch? You see your son is totally absorbed, hunched over the family laptop. You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?
Most of Mr Gove’s speech, for the record, is very sensible, erudite and witty. But I want to take issue with these starting questions, because there is nothing wrong, at least as far as I can tell, with the “bad” choice he offers.
Imagine you come home and your daughter is reading Twilight. Well: so what? When I was 17 I read Terry Pratchett, obsessively. I must have read Small Gods 15 times. Good Omens probably more. (Good Omens is a magnificent book, by the way, and I insist you read it.) Is that better or worse than Twilight? Where does it fall on the Goodness Scale between Eliot and Meyer? Girls (and some boys, but mainly girls) of my generation read Point Horror and Christopher Pike. Were they worse than Twilight? The same? Teenagers don’t all want to read Horace or the collected speeches of Edmund Burke. But they need to develop the reading skills that will allow them to approach those things, later in life, when they are interested in the subject matter. When I read (say) Infinite Jest, I could do it quickly, because I learned how to do it with Pratchett.
And, similarly, I give my misspent youth playing Doom (and trying to make it work over a dodgy local area network so I could play my friends) partial credit for the fact that I can use a PC with some confidence now, which in turn is a large part of why I have a job. I don’t claim that Angry Birds necessarily teaches the same skills, but in general, being confident in front of a screen is a vital tool for modern life. These are skills you won’t develop by being given a C++ coding manual, you have (I think) to gain an interest in it by doing stuff you enjoy first. Of course, if your kid is playing Candy Crush Saga for 16 hours a day, that’s unhealthy, but there’s a large and accessible middle ground between that and not playing it at all.
I’m sure Mr Gove is right that children who read Middlemarch at age 17 are more likely to succeed in life than children who read Twilight, because kids who read Middlemarch at 17 are probably extremely bright already. But if you want your child to be a good reader, which is more likely to work as a way in? What’s best for encouraging a child to read – which will make them more likely to read for fun in later life? And which is more likely to make your child end up as a computer-literate grown-up, Angry Birds or Pascal for Dummies?
This is an empirical question, which we might in theory be able to answer. I have my hypothesis and it seems that Mr Gove has his. Mr Gove’s speech was sensible, but those questions at the beginning undermine it: it sounds as though he thinks the old is always better than the new, the dull-but-worthy always better than the fun. It’s not. Read Twilight or Harry Potter by all means, 17-year-olds of Britain. Use them to hone your skills. And then, in a few years’ time, when you’ve read some other things as well, you can tell me why they’re awful.