The plague of illiteracy

Guyana Chronicle
May 21, 2001

EARLIER this year, a housewife, shopping at a leading City supermarket, was somewhat taken aback when she was approached by a young schoolgirl holding a packet of fish cutlets. "Miss lady, this is mince beef?" the schoolgirl asked. On being told that she could find minced beef in another section of the freezer, the schoolgirl headed in the direction indicated with an expression akin to puzzlement on her face.

The housewife later said that she was stupefied over two implications of the child's question - the first being the fact that that schoolgirl was unable to read the information the packet carried, and secondly, that the child was genuinely incapable of recognising basic meats.

The young lady wore a uniform of some kind and perhaps she might have been sent by the teacher of her home economics class to purchase a specific item for cooking and teaching purposes.

Was the teacher aware of the girl's lack of basic reading skills? It seemed unlikely that a teacher would send a child on an errand if the teacher did not have the confidence that the student was capable of executing that errand.

Incidents such as these have the capacity to shock the generation of 50-somethings whose privilege it was to be given a sound primary education in the days when reading and writing were skills acquired in the Prep classes of primary schools. By the time the baby-boomers reached Third and Fourth Standards, not only were they adept at reading and writing but they were also learning the rudiments of grammar and the finer points of composition. They were also proficient at spelling and dictation and mental arithmetic.

While the better off pupils branched off to high school, the less fortunate ones would progress to Sixth Standard when they would write the School Leaving Examination and then proceed into the world of work.

The breakdown of education structures in the decade of the 1980s is too well-known a social catastrophe to merit further recital here. What the nation has to do now is to find innovative ways of instructing those young adults who were the victims of the worst excesses of those harsh economic times.

Unfortunately, even the hallowed halls of the University of Guyana have not escaped the contagion of poor reading and writing skills. Lecturers in English continually complain that they are often reduced to teaching high school level English before attempting to introduce tertiary level concepts.

For the last two and a half decades, the Institute of Adult and Continuing Education has been doing a tremendous service in assisting youths and mature men and women to acquire the rudiments of knowledge and the education they missed during their schooldays. We wish to commend them on their excellent work. Several other institutions and bodies have been organising classes for the non-literate persons and those with only a smattering of the ABCs to acquire basic literacy and numeracy in order to function sensibly in their villages and communities.

The Baha'is `On Wings of Words' programme is another admirable venture which should be expanded and given far more support in our society. It is the nearest thing to the `Each One, Teach One' philosophy adopted some decades ago by the Cuban people to rid their land of the plague of illiteracy.

South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer expressed it succinctly in the mid-90s when she wrote in a United Nations publication that persons who lacked literacy were condemned to plod through their lives at the lowest level of human existence. They do not have the tools of reading and writing to help them unlock the mysteries of the universe nor are they capable of enjoying beauty in all its forms.