Cultural Capital-Formation, by the Book

An interesting review of cultural policy in L’Economiste this week, stressing quite how much of an orphan sector it is, despite its imaginative minister, with only just over 1% of the public budget. This is what counteracts “the motivation, the good ideas, the wish to inculcate a desire for culture.” The review highlights the “enormous shortage of basic infrastructure” – and quotes Ahmed Massaia (in a recent book about cultural policy called Un désir de culture) as writing that “our country has a terrible lack of places for the production and enjoyment of culture: theatres, arts galleries, cultural centres, museums, libraries … the Moroccan artist still suffers as a homeless person, carrying his creations on his back like unwelcome baggage.”

Above all the writer homes in upon the awful, agonizing question of reading. “It is totally unacceptable,” writes a Casablanca publisher quoted in the article, “that students can get as far as their BA without having read even one book.” The education system fails to achieve widespread literacy – the figure is currently 56% according to the World Bank, but it would be absurdly optimistic to imagine that those 56% actually read books. I imagine that the proportion of Moroccans who indulge in that strange, minority sport is about 10-15% at best.

There is a frightful paucity, too of books themselves: only 3,000 titles a year are published in Morocco, according to L’Economiste, compared to 68,000 in France (149,800 in Britain in the same year, 2011). To read that this constitutes “less than 2% of industrial production” is a puzzle – 2% seems almost bizarrely healthy for 3,000 titles, particularly when print-runs are tiny (but that’s a question for another day). In fact these figures are pretty shaky for Morocco (though those for France and the UK are auditable): Frankfurt Buchmesse notes that “The two trade associations – Association Marocaine des Professionels du Livre and Editeurs Marocains – do not collect data,” and “the statistics of UNESCO and ALECSO relating to Morocan book production are unreliable.” FB notes, though that “the number of titles published per year grew from 329 in 1990 to 1,070 titles in 2004,” so the 3,000 figure, though surprisingly large, is not absolutely impossible.

A Casablanca publisher told me earlier this year that his average print-runs had dropped from 7,000 to 1,500 in the last decade.  If (and it is a wildly approximate scenario, for one thing leaving out schoolbooks – but can we actually be said to read school books?) – if we imagine those 3,000 titles with a print-run of 2,000 each, we get to 6,000,000 individual books, or one, roughly speaking, for every six Moroccans. British publishers sold 739,000,000 copies of books in 2010, which is between ten and eleven individual books per Briton. The UK of course exports a lot of books: Morocco imports many fewer, but still 19 times as many as it exports (2011). Both figures are presumably small.

This is a strange situation for a country with quite so many distinguished authors, sold across the world. But the answer, as we know, is simple: they publish in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or Montréal, where they can expect proper distribution and sales, reviews, the sale of translation rights and so on. Despite noble efforts by a few, Morocco does not have a publishing industry – it has a few publishing houses, pathetically inadequate distribution, and a minuscule readership.

This is a chicken-and-egg challenge. How to build a market that will encourage publishers to publish, to encourage the kind of export industry that would take Moroccan authors – and scholars – to audiences around the world? Well, it all comes down to literacy (real literacy, not ‘signature-literacy’) and the energetic promotion of reading within the educational system and within the home. And I know that many of my Moroccan friends will smile wanly and shrug at this absurdly unrealistic suggestion. But without reading – without this fundamental engine of accumulating cultural and human capital in its people, all Morocco’s efforts in other areas will be undermined.

It is interesting, and depressing, to see recent coverage in the British press of literacy in Great Britain: an OECD report  ranks England and Northern Ireland 21st for numeracy and 22nd for literacy out of the 24 countries surveyed; and records that there are 8.5 million English adults with the  literacy skills expected of a ten-year old. Here’s an article on skills by Robert Peston on the BBC which looks at the figures and concludes that England is one of few countries in the world where the young are measurably less literate and less skilled than the old (that’s me!). But it isn’t my children who are less literate and numerate: it’s those who come from poor families, without the educational habits and traditions within the family that my children are fortunate enough to have. And of course this social group of Englishmen is proportionately much smaller than it is in Morocco, where most families lack a strong educational and reading tradition.

Peston writes: “Here is a horrible statistic. Across all countries, if your parents have low levels of education, you are five times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than your peers whose parents enjoyed higher levels of education. In England and Northern Ireland, the probability is eight times greater. So the most acute failure to provide young people with skills is for those right at the bottom of the social and economic pile. Now, of course, this is where the real arguments begin.” Literacy and illiteracy, in other words, are hereditary, and there is a vicious circle to be broken here in Morocco: “if your parents have low levels of education, you are five times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than your peers whose parents enjoyed higher levels of education.” That’s a mountain to climb – but it must be climbed.

He looks at reasons, asking whether our relatively poor performance in providing the young with relevant skills is “the result of poor teaching, the wrong syllabus or inadequate incentives for young people to better themselves? What the OECD would argue,” he says, “is that where employers have more of an impact on what is taught in schools and subsequently, both skills attainment and economic performance improve.”

It stands to reason. If a schoolboy or schoolgirl (or their parents) know that what they are learning is designed to get them effectively into the employment market, they are most likely to absorb it with enthusiasm. And that is in important lesson not just for England, but for Morocco.

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