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 http://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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