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Education Matters: Can a book really be as exciting as an iPad?

PUBLISHED: 09:30 21 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:49 21 January 2015




Confession time: there’s a bit of technology I’m hooked on, that my brain tells me I can’t do without.

I’m not alone, it seems. Technology-addiction is a feature of modern life. Leading neuroscientists tell us our obsession with social media may be changing the way we think and behave. Apparently, it’s not doing us any good.

As Professor Susan Greenfield warned last weekend: ‘the human brain, that most sensitive of organs, is under threat from the modern world.’

Writing in the Mail on Sunday she gave an apocalyptic warning:

‘We could be sleepwalking towards a future in which neuro-chip technology blurs the line between living and non-living machines, and between our bodies and the outside world’.

Is she overstating the dangers or articulating something we’re all noticing around us?

You only have to watch people in pubs and restaurants – even the most romantically-entwined couples – to see how often that lingering gaze deep into the eyes of a special one then morphs into a sneaky glance at a mobile phone, to catch up on Facebook, tweet a pronouncement, or check whether anyone has texted, messaged, or emailed us.

I’m not criticising.

As I say – I’m hooked on technology just like so many others. Except that the object of my addiction is a bit less glamorous. In fact, it was invented over a thousand years ago and exploded into popular use in 1476.

My addictive technology is the book – an invention so familiar that we no longer perceive it as technology. But it is, and even in its traditional printed form, with pages we turn and a format we can tuck conveniently into our pocket, the book remains one of humanity’s most extraordinary inventions.

In their original form, books were expensive and rare. William Caxton then established the first printing press, choosing Westminster because its law courts and proximity to government would generate lots of texts to print.

Suddenly what someone said or thought could be recorded not just by a scribe writing in laborious long-hand, but by a contraption that could then generate hundreds or thousands of copies in a format we could carry around.

The book had arrived and human knowledge would begin to increase exponentially. What you knew no longer depended on who you knew. Ideas were no longer dependent on word of mouth. Wherever you lived, reading a book could help you to learn the best that had been thought and said.

We know that books remain an essential ingredient in educational success. A child who can read independently by seven will have significant advantages by the age of eighteen. Those brought up in houses with books, with reading as a part of everyday life, will gain in confidence, build knowledge, acquire learning skills, and get pleasure and empathy from seeing through the eyes of fictional characters.

That’s why when people ask me which part of my job do I gain the most satisfaction from, it’s simple. I love the fact that we have a formidable track-record in helping young people to go to university – five of them this year gaining offers to Oxford and Cambridge, and more than a hundred being offered a range of places on a range of courses at higher education institutions across the UK.

I am especially proud that so many of these are students whose parents didn’t go to university. They are the educational pioneers of their families.

My delight isn’t because I believe that people who go to university are in any way better than those who don’t. It’s because universities originally arose in order to enable humans to develop expertise in a subject. Long before people could afford to have books in their homes, universities had libraries. Thus it’s where we went to ‘read’ a subject.

It remains one of the great privileges of life – three years to be immersed in your chosen subject.

Books matter. Ours is a school with a library at its heart, just as mine is a house with far too many books. I can’t bring myself to cull any of them. And, frankly, there are many far worse addictions in life.

Book-obsession. In Latin: bibliomania. It’s one craving I hope all our children will experience.

Geoff Barton


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