I drew attention a few days ago to the fact that in countries where there is not universal schooling, literacy rates tend to be low. Somebody commenting here then said that the autonomous acquisition of literacy as practiced by some parents in this country is predicated upon children growing up in a literate environment; surrounded by the printed word. Others have made this point; among them Paul Goodman, John Holt and Alan Thomas. Reference has been made to the ‘sea of literacy’ which envelops children in Britain and America, allegedly making it easy for them simply to pick up literacy informally. Not one of those advocating this way of learning to read seems to have considered the implications of such a state of affairs.
At one time in this country, few people could read. Shops had signs consisting of recognisable objects rather than words. The three golden balls for the pawnbroker and the red and white barber’s pole are relics of this; as are the painted images on pub signs. As more children attended school, so the literacy rate rose. Once schooling was all but universal, the literacy rate grew to around 100%. This means that there is printed matter wherever we look. Free newspaper and advertisements are quite literally thrust upon us, being pushed through our letterboxes. It would be hard to avoid seeing printed words each day. In a country like Bangladesh, where fewer than 50% of children go to school for five years or more, the literacy rate is below 50%. It is growing though. As the rates of schooling increase, so too does the literacy rate. There is a direct and strong correlation between the move to universal schooling and the achievement of 100% literacy in a country.
What this means is that parents in this country who choose not to send their children to school and allow them to acquire literacy informally by immersing themselves in the ‘sea of literacy’ are benefiting from universal schooling just as much as those who do send their kids to school. They are riding on the back of compulsory schooling. The universal schooling produces the literate society which is needed for the autonomous acquisition of literacy. It is rather like vaccination. When vaccination levels for measles are almost universal, the disease becomes very rare. When the levels of vaccination fall, the result is a measles epidemic. This does not of course mean that one child who is not vaccinated will get measles; merely that he still benefits from the protection afforded by all those who have been vaccinated.
It is common for autonomously educating parents to moan about the efforts made by local authorities to ensure that all children attend school. This is a little ungracious, because without universal schooling of the kind we have in this country, there would be no literate society, no ‘sea of literacy’. Their own method, that of letting their children acquire literacy informally from observing the world around them, would then be impossible. Autonomous educators actually need schools at which almost 100% of children are taught, in order to create the correct environment for their own children to learn effectively.