My primary school classroom was on its best behaviour when the headmaster came in to see how things were going. After all, he was the man with the cane.
“What’s six-and-five-and-seven-and-three-and-four?” he barked at a deferential class. I don’t really remember the numbers, just the answer. I remember it because a split second after the question ended a boy at the back of the room yelled “25” and got a smile and a nod from the headmaster.
In my time, in the 1950s, primary classrooms were sorted according to test results, with top marks in the front row, where I was proud to sit; they called my type girlie-swots. I was shocked that a lowly-ranked kid had outsmarted me.
That memory has stayed with me down through the decades, through university, working life and beyond. I think I suspected then, as I certainly know now, that academic and other success is no guarantee that you’re the brightest star in the sky. Just one of the lucky ones.
I have indeed been lucky, from the outset. Around the meal table, all six children in my family were exposed to stories and jokes and word-play and quizzes and all the other benefits of conversation.
Thanks to my parents, all of us got the longest possible exposure to what was then a world-class public education system in Tasmania, where we learned that knowing numbers and letters and the words they make was really, really important.
But the best part was that learning to read got me into books and stories. When the day was over, with homework done, the football kicked, kindling gathered for the fire and my radio heroes victorious, I would curl up in bed with a book until my father came to turn off the light.
Starting with a huge volume of selections from the classics, a sixth birthday present from my auntie and uncle (I still have the book, inscribed), I moved on through the Secret Seven and Biggles into my parents’ grown-up books. That was my entry into the wide world beyond my island home.
Most of all, I was lucky to have a stable home life with supportive parents, free of neglect or abuse. I took that for granted as a child. Heedless of what might be happening in others’ homes, I thought that the “dumb” kids at the back of the class just didn’t try hard enough.
My life since leaving school has taught me now wrong I was, starting with a year or so as a court reporter in Brisbane, where I observed the impact on people of poverty, abuse, homelessness and a lack of education.
I began to see the connections between these and many more social afflictions. My thinking has moved steadily away from regressive measures such as more law enforcement and stiffer penalties and towards steps that address the root causes of these problems.
Throughout my life, the divide between law and order on the one hand and social advancement on the other has dominated social and political debate. One side focuses on defending the status quo; the other on ameliorating disadvantage. Reconciliation seems impossible.
I don’t see why that has to be so. I can’t see why police and judicial agencies can’t work together with social services in a common cause. Why is it that our politicians continue to miss the links between childhood stability, education and success, and between abuse, poverty and criminality?
The underlying factor in all these social conditions is the ability to communicate one’s needs to others. That requires us to think coherently, put those thoughts in words and pass them on to others, to ask the right questions, and above all to make social connections with others.
When people can manage all this they can generally make a go of things, avoid problems with others and live reasonably well. When they can’t, they get into trouble – falling into poverty, abuse and worse. And that downward spiral is almost impossible to stop without outside help.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is evidence aplenty that all people in this sort of difficulty, old and young alike, can turn their lives around if they are taken seriously by others. With explicit instruction, people can be taught at any age to read and write.
Once they have that power all sorts of good things happen, and these things don’t stop with the individual. They flow through to families and neighbourhoods and economies. They make for more cohesive communities and a more law-abiding citizenry.
We will always need police and courts because society is a complicated beast. Literacy and the sense of personal empowerment that comes from it will not solve everything. But I can’t think of a better place to start.
Peter Boyer is a journalist who specialises in the science and politics of climate change. Here he writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find out more at chattermatters.com.au.