An art disappears with dire consequences
My column By Adam Harris
July 18, 2004
We in Guyana seem to have lost the art of expressing ourselves and this may be responsible for the spate of killings that seems to be plaguing the country. Scarcely a day goes by without someone either seriously hurting another of killing someone because of a dispute.
A psychiatrist would be the best person to explain the frustration that comes from the inability to convey a mood or feeling, especially when the person is trying his best. Just about everyone is familiar with the anger that accompanies the efforts by a stutterer at saying something. And indeed it must be very frustrating.
There are those of us who at times have a problem finding the correct word to express ourselves or to describe a situation. Of course, those of us with a bit more expansive vocabulary would resort to a substitute but there is nothing like the real word.
Sometimes we are lucky to have someone help us with the word whenever we happen to be in a conversation but there are times when no such help is forthcoming and indeed we become somewhat frustrated.
Those of us who have the ability to select the correct word to describe a given situation are those of us who happened to read extensively. Reading broadened our horizon and our vocabulary. Reading helped many of us to enjoy vicarious experiences, to see places we never visited and to meet people we would never see in our lifetime.
Reading does much more. It makes us think. Many of the successful reporters were people who read a lot. They were exposed to situations in which they had no formal knowledge but because of their reading they were able to appreciate what was said and then report that to the wider public.
And lest people are not aware, the reading public invariably gets information third hand. That is because the reporter must first assimilate what he hears and then translate that to the public. A good reporter is one who has the ability to capture the salient points of whatever transpires and then disseminates the information. Unfortunately, the days of the good reporter seem to be numbered.
I have had cause to write about the disappearance of reading skills among the people who will be tomorrow’s leaders. I have also remarked that even among reporters one would be hard pressed to find people who actually took time to read the newspapers. These same reporters do not even follow the news on television.
One of my hobbyhorses is to ask every young person who approaches me in connection with a job to indicate the last book he or she happened to read. If this person is just out of school or a university student I would hear about some textbook. The school leaver would be quick to name a literature book that was compulsory reading.
The next thing I would do is to ask that person to describe the environment in which he or she lives. I have passed the stage of being shocked. I have met too many school leavers and University of Guyana students and graduates.
Very few know their neighbours (which is not surprising in the city these days) and even less know what is happening in their neighbourhood. If the person seems to have some potential I would ask the person to write a piece on the most exciting thing or some deplorable situation in the neighbourhood. Often I would get nothing.
When I decide to ask questions I would hear about low water pressure or no potable water, a flood-prone situation or the hassle of getting transportation out of the area. What this tells me is that the person does not consider these things important enough to warrant a report.
If that is bad enough, the time comes when I have to read what they write. From their writings I realize that divorces are not only related to people. They have invaded the language. Subject and verbs are unrelated as are tenses.
How did these people go through school and get good grades is beyond me. Perhaps they were part of a situation in which the teachers were either little better off or are simply fed up that they looked for ideas at the expense of grammar.
The lack of reading skills is translated into the poor ability to express oneself. I have seen myriad letters in the press bemoaning the fact that there are spelling mistakes in routine advertisements that besiege people. It is not that the people who prepare the advertisements are careless; they simply do not know better.
This must have been the case when the Americans broke away from Great Britain in 1776. The little spelling “mistakes” appeared and eventually they became part of the language. But I doubt this. I believe that whatever changes one notices between the American English and the English English was studied and skillfully executed.
Those among us who seem to be introducing a new mode of spelling must be trying to do the same thing. The difference is that many of us are not buying the change because we know better.
Then we have to hear the pronunciations. Simple words are given foreign pronunciations. Some words appear to be foreign because the young people simply do not know them. I get fun asking them to explain a word and seeing the blank look on their face.
Recently, Stabroek News ran a report that was in effect, an analysis of the recent Secondary Schools Entrance Examinations. It was most revealing. Of the 17,000 who wrote the examinations some 11,000 could not read. Something had to be wrong. One would have expected that reading would have been integral to education. If a child cannot read then he cannot attempt the questions before him in an examination.
How could teachers promote children who cannot read? What the Stabroek News analysis told me was that 65 per cent of the children who wrote the examination should not have been allowed to do so.
A long time ago, when I was a teacher, someone told me that if a child has not learnt then a teacher has not taught. Certainly the teachers were not teaching and the parents were doing nothing to help the situation.
Many of the 11,000 were lugging huge book bags to school. It turned out that these were simply for decorative purposes. The situation is going to get worse. So it is back to our ability to solve disputes.
Since we cannot read or reason we are going to lose our temper more readily than we should. And we are not going to be in a position to worry about the consequences. So we will wound or kill then run into hiding when some little part of our brain convinces us that we have done something wrong.
But what I really want to know is why can’t we reverse the tide? Surely we could make young people read. If in case we can’t, then I shudder to think that we are living in a dying society and we could be caught up in it.