I've been fortunate in the last few months to have spoken at length to several education experts who clarified a few key questions about the Trini education situation. The experts are involved with the Adult Literacy Tutors Association, ALTA, including its CEO and founder, Paula Lucie-Smith.
First, the numbers. In 1994 and 1995, UWI and ALTA did separate literacy surveys. Between them, they concluded that about 22 per cent of the population was totally illiterate, and only 45 per cent was literate enough to read and interpret a daily newspaper. Several governments have responded to these statistics in the same way: they've ignored them and stopped doing surveys. Official statistics (of 98 per cent literacy) are based on enrolment rates in primary schools.
But the literacy problem is more profound, beginning with our very idea of literacy. As educational consultant Wallis Wyke (and others) said: literacy doesn't just mean reading. It extends to listening, thinking, reasoning, and speaking. There are also visual and cultural literacy. Our schoolroom model, of rows of desks of uniformed inmates taking notes from the blackboard, is outdated, to put it mildly. Many schools in the metropole, and a few in Trinidad, are arranged differently, and cultivate this extended definition of literacy.
But even before we get to the classroom, several critical issues are not even acknowledged, like learning disabilities. According to Catherine Kelshall, head of the Dyslexia Association, a conservative estimate for the percentage of dyslexics in the Trini population is ten per cent. That means 100,000 people (conservatively) have a treatable condition the education system simply ignores.
And that's just one disability. There are others. Another crucial issue, according to Kelshall, is the language environment. The quality of the conversations to which children (and adults) are exposed, and the way they're spoken to, affect their literacy. If children are not spoken to enough, they do not develop necessary literacy skills. If they're spoken to exclusively in talk-radio-speak, it can actually wire their brains in a particular way. The wrong way.
(Big shout-out here to those radio talk shows which have entertained some, indoctrinated many, and repulsed me, for the last 15 years, and all the parents with young children who have their radios permanently tuned in, instead of actually talking to or reading to their children. Is it any wonder there seems to be a generational culture of deviance (like "fight clubs" and sex videos involving teenagers from schools) that exists far outside of our understanding?)
Apropos of this form of neglect, literacy is also connected to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Mrs Lucie-Smith opined that abuse is a significant reason for children's inability to learn. This is another of those areas (child abuse) which seems to be bereft of statistics, because everyone who gets close to the problem screams and runs away.
Many people in the education system I've spoken to over the years have voiced strong suspicions of horrifying abuse numbers in Trinidad. One person told me about an institution where the children all seemed to be capable, but performing poorly. A psychologist was brought in to assess them and concluded they were all (20-30 boys and girls) abused or molested, but nothing could be done to help.
This is a particular cause of anguish for many teachers, which destroys their morale, and warps the institution of education. If you try to help an abused child, you give the child hope, then when the principal, police and State all essentially tell you they can't, won't and don't want to do anything, you have to abandon the child to his or her abusers.
From this, another contribut-ing factor to illiteracy is the fact that students see the school as a hostile environment. This is established in the hostile way teachers, administration, and educa- tional authorities generally, treat the students. The students then react logically: they treat the environment in a hostile and violent way.
Now, think of how many children are hit with the multiple disabilities of abusive homes, hostile schools, and generally hostile social environments. They are, first of all, emotionally traumatised. According to educational consultant Ramona Khan, these children will seek out those who will affirm them, give them emotional shelter, and not make them feel inferior.
Unfortunately, this too often means criminal gangs, who prey on this kind of child. This leads to an intriguing dimension of the failure of the education system: the vacuum it creates, which is filled by a variety of soi-disant teachers, like talk-radio hosts, and people like Louis Farrakhan. A good example was last week, when a high-profile Afrocentrist hostilely objected to a calypsonian singing a song meant for "African" women to an "Indian" woman.
This person then claimed to have worked with young African people from the depressed areas to "give them a sense of self." If, in the absence of a functioning education system, the "sense of self" these young people are given is hostile, resentful to everyone, and automatically blames any convenient scapegoat for all troubles, this would explain a lot about what is coming out of those areas.
As to solutions, ALTA has been after successive governments to put its programmes in schools. They've got much talk, and little action. BP has sponsored an ALTA-designed literacy course as part of its Mayaro community programme, but the Government is less decisive. And in the end, it falls to the Government. The PP seemed to understand all these issues two years ago. Now all they seem to understand is how to produce disappointment.
(An interview with Paula Lucie-Smith, and a brief video biography of ALTA, are available on the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence YouTube channel (ANSCAFE). They can also be accessed via ANSCAFE's Facebook page.)