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Illiterates Sans Frontieres

Denis Solomon • count words

"...The Faculty, with its head resolutely in the sand, continued to attempt to instil the elements of grammar and style that should have been mastered in the third year of secondary school, and indeed were by some, but not by those who came to UWI."

In the twenty-five years I worked in the UWI Faculty of Arts (under its various names) I often thought, and sometimes only half-jokingly advocated, that the Faculty should be abolished. That I was part of a massive fraud, teaching irrelevancies to people who didn’t want to learn.

If the situation was bad in English and English literature, in foreign language studies it was worse. The Department of Language and Linguistics steadfastly refused to face the questions of how many professional linguists Trinidad and Tobago could need in one year (or ever), and for what purposes French and Spanish should be taught (even the order in which the languages were traditionally cited betrayed an outworn bias). Year after year we admitted hordes of people who possessed certificates to prove they could not achieve academic mastery of a foreign tongue, and could not read enough of it (or even, sometimes, of English) to acquire any knowledge of literature. They signed up in droves for linguistics courses, because the only thing they knew about that discipline was that it wasn’t literature, which their entire background had taught them to dread. The Faculty, with its head resolutely in the sand, continued to attempt to instil the elements of grammar and style that should have been mastered in the third year of secondary school, and indeed were by some, but not by those who came to UWI.

Relatively few people are intellectually fitted for academic study of foreign languages and literatures. On the other hand, anyone not actually mentally retarded can be given enough bad Spanish, French or whatever to enable him to function in specific environments that require it. We ought therefore to have severely limited our academic offerings to the few who could benefit from them and concentrated on service courses in foreign languages for other branches of the University like agriculture, engineering or the Institutes of Business and International Relations. Instead, we ended up creating “majors” in the various language studies, which required students to pass one year in order to get into the next. This meant that those who didn’t pass had to find another major, but given the paucity of their background no other was open to them. When the failure rate in first-year Spanish (the language that was compulsory in secondary school) passed seventy per cent the Faculty found itself in a crisis of its own making.

There were two ways to get out of it. The first, which was excluded by Parkinson’s Law, would have been to abolish the Faculty as unnecessary, given the lack of aptitude of the vast majority of its potential clientele, and wait for the length of time it would take for the school system and the society as a whole to produce enough literate people to make its resuscitation necessary. The second would have been to have two parallel programmes, one for the linguistically gifted and the other for dummies, one leading to an honours degree and the other to a general one, unless the students could find another field to major in. This, given their background, was very unlikely. It was also unlikely because, although we had moved in theory to the American system of a degree by courses rather than by subjects, we had done so without including the essential American component of a wide range of options.

But what made the whole scheme impossible was the Faculty’s refusal to allow the Department to set a minimum standard, either of O-level achievement on entry or of grades at the end of the first year, as a pre-requisite to a major. “Oh no you don’t” I was told flatly in a Faculty meeting by a Professor of History. “If you do that they will all come to History, and we don’t want them”. So we continued to tell people with grades of E at O- or A-level that we could perform the miracle of turning them into Bachelors of Arts in French or Spanish studies.

As for linguistics, so limited is the need for graduates that we ought to have confined it largely to graduate programmes for those who had demonstrated serious desire and aptitude for an academic career, and limited our undergraduate offerings to preparatory courses which would also provide a linguistics input to other programmes, such as literature and psychology, or to the teacher training programmes of the Faculty of Education. This indeed was the idea when the teaching of linguistics was begun in 1970 with a Ford Foundation grant. But as soon as a Department was set up politics took over. The Department rapidly became a job market for people wanting courses in their own sub-speciality added at the undergraduate level. When last I counted there were nine Linguistics courses in an overall Arts degree programme consisting of fourteen. Some teachers also wanted to be able to advance their careers by publishing, not on linguistics and language teaching, but on such subjects as parang or the place of women in the West Indian novel.

This proliferation of undergraduate courses in linguistics continued despite the complaints of head teachers of secondary schools, who warned us that as far as they were concerned candidates for teaching posts at their schools had to have degrees with a substantial emphasis on the subjects they would be required to teach, among which linguistics did not figure. So even in the career area traditional for Arts graduates we were manufacturing unemployables.

It was recognised, eventually, that we should move with the times by teaching other languages besides French and Spanish. We began with Portuguese. But it was offered within the same academic framework as the others, which meant that a certain standard had to be achieved, as opposed to the pidgin level that might have been acceptable for a first-year course in a language taught for special purposes. In a situation where students with up to eight years of French or Spanish could not achieve a standard worthy of a university, the Department knew very well that they would not achieve it in a language they were studying for the first time. So the course was not called “Portuguese” but “Luso-Brazilian Studies”. This enabled the language content to be fleshed out with enough heterogeneous non-linguistic material to make a decent pass rate possible.

When the right thing is done for the wrong reason, it becomes the wrong thing. In the eighties the University began to encourage the Faculty to teach courses in language for special purposes to other branches of the University and to outside groups. What underlay this decision was not a belated reflection on the manpower needs of the country but simply shortage of money. We were to peddle our wares to bring in revenue. But the idea came twenty years too late. You can only teach language, in the framework of the modern approaches and objectives that have arisen out of global communication needs, as part of a conscious policy, not as an afterthought prompted by economic desperation. Your recruitment, training, research and materials development have to have been oriented towards those objectives. Ours weren’t, and as far as I know, they still aren’t.

UWI is by no means the only university faced with the problem that most of those who study the humanities do so as a last resort. Also, in this country there is considerable blame to be laid at the door of the school system and the philistinism of society as a whole. But it is precisely in this situation that St. Augustine should be seeking a principled basis for meeting the challenge of non-literacy. I speak now as an outsider. But I think that apart from superficial reorganisation prompted by economic stringency, it has not begun to do so.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top