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The Un-Literate Society

Denis Solomon • 1,391 words

In our rare bouts of national introspection we alternate between complacency and self-flagellation. Our latest source of distress is that we have discovered how illiterate we are. A study conducted by the UWI Institute of Social and Economic Research finds that far from our being 97% literate as we have so long boasted, 12.6 percent of the population over 15 years of age is illiterate, and another 8.7 percent “functionally illiterate”, that is, unable to use written English to function in life.

The figures confirm the findings of an earlier study by the Adult Literacy Tutors’ Association, findings which had been pilloried in the press by wishful thinkers, even if they came as no surprise to the UWI Faculties of Education and Arts and General Studies, or even to clear-headed people in the general population on the strength of everyday experience. The grunts and mumblings that pass for communication in shops and offices, the delays in airport Customs lines because of travellers’ inability to fill out forms, the primary school teacher on Brian Lara Promenade saying to her pupils “Allyou ready for we to play de game?” should have alerted us that there was something wrong, whatever the name we gave to it.

But whether our reaction is one of shock or of recognition, the facts must be placed in perspective. Our earlier belief in our literacy was based (insofar as it was based on anything other than PNM self-aggrandisement) on figures for years of schooling. In other words, the possibility that one could emerge illiterate from a certain number of years of schooling was, rightly or wrongly, not considered. And this criterion was used generally throughout the world. When I taught in a Modern Secondary school in the East End of London in 1957, fully a quarter of the pupils left at the age of fifteen or even sixteen unable, as far as anyone could see, to read or write; and this was before the picture was confused by massive immigration. Nevertheless, Britain reported a high level of literacy. Now, the same kind of concerns that have prompted the ALTA and ISER studies have led to a profound rethinking of the problem in the industrialised countries. The concept of functional illiteracy came into being to describe the situation there.

This profound concern has persisted and even increased up to the present day, and is so far without prospect of solution. The 1992 UNESCO International Yearbook of Education quotes studies putting the number of people unable, even if they had been to school, to read newspapers, instructions needed at work or information supplied with consumer products, at up to 20 percent of the adult population in Britain, four percent in Holland and nine percent in France.

The Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress found in 1993 that whatever the yardstick used to measure literacy, a large proportion of the US population was in need of improving its literacy skills, that at least 35 million adults had difficulty with common literacy tasks, and that the problem was likely to grow over the next several decades.

The ISER study has concluded from its data that twelve years of schooling is the minimum required for everyone to attain the lowest level of functional literacy. Whether this conclusion is valid or not is one thing: it implies that no one is so resistant to education that twelve years will not do the trick for him. Be that as it may, Dr. Lawrence Carrington, Dean of the Faculty of Education at St. Augustine, concludes in turn that the education system must be made effective enough so that the minimum of twelve years is reduced. But the United States Office of Education estimated in 1960 that functional literacy required at least eight years of schooling (presumably of good schooling), and as early as 1970 many authorities there believed that the minimum was completion of high school. The ISER’s figure of twelve years is also precisely the figure given in a 1985 work by an American educator, J. Kozol, as the amount of schooling an American needed in order to be able to fill out his tax return.

So that at the moment when we are beginning to work with the concept of functional illiteracy, the industrialised countries, and the international education community as a whole, have virtually abandoned the term and begun to incorporate the criteria defining it into an overall definition of illiteracy. In the United States, the 1991 National Adult Literacy Act defined literacy, not functional literacy, as “...an individual’s ability to read, write and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.” For the Government of India, literacy is the ability to read forty words per minute, write twenty words per minute, and do two-digit arithmetic. In the early 1980s the French returned from the use of the word “analphabétisme” to the earlier “illettrisme”, as a more useful concept, including as it does the idea of having at some time received schooling, learned to read, and then lost the skill for all practical purposes.

The extent of the problem may appear greater or less depending on the definitions and criteria used; but at the end of the day it is still great, even in the technologically advanced countries. Anyone wishing to define illiteracy by a single yardstick is doomed to frustration. Literacy is not something one has or does not have, but a continuum of skills possessed in varying amounts, and no single test can therefore discriminate between the literate and the non-literate. As far as remedies are concerned, the prospect is bleak. Most education authorities recognise the importance of the “life-span” perspective, which holds that remediation must be permanent for all illiterate adults, not only to prevent relapse on their part but for the generational effect. In spite of this, massive resources continue to be spent by public authorities such as the armed forces in largely futile attempts to solve the problem.

In this context several factors seem to emerge. The first is that we are not alone, though our grasp of the parameters of the problem may be somewhat retarded. The second is that we cannot put the whole burden on the education system; the problem is a very complicated function of many societal factors. The third is that the lack of prospect of improvement even in the countries we take as our models seems to suggest that the real problem is how to deal with a permanent lag between technological progress and the capacity of society to prepare its members to cope with that progress, rather than how to reach some kind of ideal state of preparedness for any level of technology. An interesting feature of the ISER study is that more of the illiterates are to be found among the employed than the unemployed. Perhaps somehow there has been a replacement of the formal skills of literacy with an informal aptitude for survival.

In other words, the illiterate may always be with us. What then are the societal factors that make it more or less of a problem from one country to another? The answer may lie in the concept of “unliteracy” as opposed to “illiteracy”; in the fact that the former may be far more widespread in society than quantitative measurements can possibly show, since it must at least involve attitude to as well as opportunity for learning. In other words, not that the illiterate are illiterate, but that the educated classes are not literate enough. Not how many people can read and write if they have to, but how many people read and write when they don’t have to. It may be easy enough for journalists and University lecturers to see unliteracy in students, schoolteachers and the man in the street; who sees it in journalists and University lecturers?

The difference between us and the industrialised countries that share our problems – or rather their statistical manifestations – is that in them the educated class, however small, is educated. That there is a life of the mind in parallel with the life of the marketplace and the revivalists’ tents; and that its adherents are moderately well distributed through the various estates of the realm.

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