The Dumbing of Guyana

From Sunday Stabroek , April 14, 1996
by Ian McDonald

Not long ago I asked a young man who had been through the school system to read a passage in a book aloud for me, not a very difficult passage. He enunciated the words slowly, painfully, without expression or emphasis as though the words had no connection With one another. A couple of times he came across a word too long to decipher and then he pointed and said, a little sadly, "I don't know that one."

When he had come to the end of the passage he relaxed. "What did that mean?" I asked. A look of disbelief came across his face which clearly said "How should I know? I was only reading it." For him reading and comprehension were two completely different operations, the latter beyond anything he had been taught.

That is not the only lack in the education of young Guyanese. Most of them cannot write any kind of letter. Simple calculations are beyond them, seven times eight for instance. They do not know what "plus" and and "minus" mean. Ask them and see. And this is after going through, say nine or ten years of "schooling." They are almost completely devoid of what used to be called genera knowledge. How many young Guyanese know what GDP means or what is the nature of Venezuela's claim on Guyana or could name even six or seven countries in Caricom, if indeed they know what Caricom means.

In the recently conducted survey of literacy in the 14 to 25 age group in Guyana a young woman of 20 who had attended a general secondary school was asked to write on "The day I will always remember." Here is what she wrote:
"The day I away remember is my school that is the most best day I would always remember. because these we the which were full of opportunity. (I) we could have ask the teacher any question (2) the teacher were very dood. we use to go outing. also we use to have a nice time that it why i alway remember that day. (please accept this) ."

Please do not underestimate the scale of the problem. The current literacy rate in Guyana is said to be 96.4%. Who do we think we are fooling? Only if literacy is measured in terms of the bare ability to sign one's name is such an estimate credible and even then it seems much too high. in practical fact Guyana is fast becoming an illiterate society, losing the ability to enter the 21st century with any hope of competing and making its way in the world.

Many school-leavers who come for jobs seem barely literate, hardly capable of writing intelligibly. The failure rate in the Use of English courses at the University of Guyana is high and even simple courses specially designed to help teachers in training to cope with the Use of English course have proven very hard for them. If teachers themselves are woefully deficient, how can the students be taught?

The recent Functional Literacy Survey is easily the most disturbing report I have read about the state of Guyana. Even the report last year by the then General Manager of GEC to President Jagan foretelling the current collapse of, electricity generation was not so depressing. The Literacy Survey shows that the light is departing our minds, not just our houses and businesses. The subtitle of this terrifying survey might as well have been "The Dumbing of Guyana."

The survey finds that 89% of out of school youths in Guyana, aged 14-25, making up 24% of the population are operating at "a low to moderate level of functional literacy". That means that 89% of young people in this vital category possess a literacy level "below what is needed to function effectively in The Guyanese society." That is an appallingly high percentage of very low level literacy. No wonder there are fewer and fewer young people to be found to do even barely satisfactory jobs in the public service, the professions, and in the growing business sector. Inferior standard performers have to be accepted because there are many too few quality candidates available. When one considers that probably quite a high percentage of the more literate young people are emigrating then one truly begins to despair.

Illiterate societies are voiceless, powerless and culturally oppressed. 'They are worse off in terms of life expectation, infant mortality, educational provision, nutrition, health services and income per capita. Industries are less developed and agriculture is less productive." A sharp reduction in the illiteracy now entrenched in Guyana is essential not simply to improve the performance of the work force but ultimately to preserve the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.

The dumbing of Guyana - deteriorated educational standards the growth of functional illiteracy, the spread of a completely unread underclass - is by far the most troubling phenomenon of our time. The implications are profoundly negative for public administration, the growth of business, the success of investment technological progress, cultural development, and the life and death battle against drugs and crime. The light is going out in the minds of our youth. Weep for our beloved country, weep.