Reading – only for the middle classes?

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I had a very interesting conversation the other day that got me thinking about who reads books these days. A friend of mine casually commented that she was helping out during the school summer holidays by listening to groups of children reading and talking about the books they read. One of the things she has noticed since doing this, is that only certain types of children seem to be reading at all.

The women that run the scheme were of the opinion that it is only children from the upper middle classes that read and are encouraged to do so by their parents. It is her experience that children from working class or poorer backgrounds never take part in this scheme. I wonder why this should be.

My first thought is to wonder if the educational standards available to poorer families are lower than those available to the less poor. I quickly dismissed this as not entirely applicable due to the way our British educational system works. Unless you are rich enough to send your child to public school, everyone goes to the same schools regardless of income. I went to the local comprehensive along with eleven hundred other kids from various backgrounds and I remember most of them being of a far lower reading standard that me.

Perhaps the cause lies in how reading is perceived by the various classes of society. Many people live in inner city environments, they struggle financially with many spending years on benefits, and many come from families that haven’t gone out to work for generations. Inner cities are a different environment to grow up in than rural areas and children grow up with an extended ‘family’ consisting of other kids from the same environment. Gangs are a part of city living and kids grow up without the experience of emotional and mental self sufficiency that is available to those in rural communities. Inner city kids who spend their free time playing in the street or running with gangs will likely look upon reading as ‘cissy’ and of little value to their vision of what lies ahead for their lives.

I believe that the class divide is the likely candidate for reading’s unpopularity. Not only are reading standards down among those in poorer, inner city areas but the idea that reading is important is lower in those same people. When you have parents that have never gone out to work and gained any kind of work ethic to pass on to you, your values change according to your circumstances. Your priorities change to suit your environment and if that environment is a deprived inner city where gang culture rules the streets, trying to ‘better yourself’ is a way to make yourself a target for aggression. Far from being an environment they wish to get out of, the deprived inner city way of life has become a culture all its own, of which its people are proud to belong, and which they fiercely defend. It brings with it a set of unique rules and cultural taboos and reading is not a priority.

So what are we to do? Do we try to change this situation, and if so, how? Should we try to change it at all, and if not, why not? Society has always been fluid, evolving with its people as the generations come and go. Whether we fight or go with the flow, one thing is for sure – if we give up the defence of reading for good, we can never bring it back once it’s gone. The moment we lower our reading standards and priorities, we can never raise them again. We must decide whether we are prepared to bid reading a fond farewell or keep hold of it, even if it does become the sole preserve of the upper classes.

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2 comments

  1. I believe we have the same issue in America, although we are not, as of yet, as far left on the social scale. I believe reading is encouraged among those living north of poverty and those aspiring to get there. Not only is it not encouraged for those on assistance, there is a stigma attached to those within this population against reading. And, of course, there is no incentive for our ever-expanding government to encourage literacy as reading spawns critical thought and critical though, or free thinking, is not conducive to maintaining a good portion of the populace in need of assistance. You see, the more of the population that rely on the government for their needs, the more likely those propagating this system are to get their vote. The more tension and hatred between race, class, and everything else that this form of government can bring–the greater the divide–the more effective they are in control.
    I grew up poor and lived outside the city. My parents did not encourage me to read and I sometimes wonder if they cared at all whether I even graduated from High School. Neither of my parents graduated from High School. I read books as a means of escape from my lowly existence. I began writing as a way to express my voice. Little did I know that all this reading and writing would bring about a desire to learn more–to do more–and to have a better life.
    So, I do believe that reading and other skills encouraged by those in the middle class and especially for the more affluent, but not as much among the poor. Nonetheless, this seems to have little to no effect on the production of writers. I think that the need to write is something that falls outside of class or race.

    1. I grew up with one upper class parent and one lower class one and both were avid readers and encouraged me to be the same. You and I come from a different time though JL, things are different now and not for the better in my opinion.

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