(Il)Literacy as a Cultural Problem

January 25, 2008

I sent this to the Gleaner on 1/24/08; they probably won’t publish it.

To the Editor:

It seems to me that the problem of illiteracy of schoolchildren in Jamaica is a cultural question, not simply a political one best left to be resolved by governmental officials or agencies. Our reluctance to commit to full literacy of all our citizens is reflected everywhere in this society, including in our classrooms. Consequently, that many children move from primary to secondary public schools without basic literacy skills is hardly a new problem in this society.

On the contrary, this issue has been buried for many years under the grossly exaggerated and highly popularized statistic that Jamaica has more than 85 percent literacy rate. We — policymakers and citizens alike — have known that nothing could ever have been further from the truth, but we have done little to address this issue. The current situation is borne of our collective disinvestment and shortsightedness.

Sorry, we cannot blame any political administration for this mess; it has been years in the making.

For one thing, our schools themselves do not promote literacy. On top of the ridiculously large classes that teachers and children have to contend with, many educators themselves also believe that low levels of literacy among some children indicates a primordial defect of the student and his/her social environs. The “dunce” is not just an academic label, but one that is socially determined and actively produced in the classroom. In the deepest irony, a self-described and well-known educator who was bemoaning students’ lackluster performance on an essay contest, informed me that such an outcome was ultimately not a problem for her per se since “the cream always rises to the top”; she simply would have preferred more “cream” in the mix of essay writers.

Consequently, some educators do not see illiteracy as a problem or as a reflection on their abilities to provide a basic education for our children. In a similar turn, our educators often take the ability to read — and to provide instruction on how to do so — for granted. But literacy, is a complex relationship with words, symbols and language, not just a skill. Sadly, not all of our teachers can or even have the inclination to convey why and how literacy is important, beyond passing the GSAT or scoring well on essay contests. In truth, how many of our teachers read anything (besides the Bible)? At the end of the day, our teachers may have to relearn what they should be preaching, as well as how to convey that material in the classroom and in their own lives.

It certainly does not help matters when we promote ourselves as an “oral culture”, as if, in 2008, one\’s ability to speak, think and reason is not connected with the written word. Many of us laugh and shake our heads with self-righteous pity when we hear of entertainers who cannot understand the contracts they negotiate, but we never ask what this says about the conditions of the schools that they came out of — and they all went to school.

Adults, parents and caregivers who tell the children for whom they are responsible to “put down the book and to instead(!!) “go and do something worthwhile” – only undermine their children’s future. Equally problematic are caregivers who regularly complain to other adults (in the presence of other children!) and bemoan the fact that their children “don’t want to do anything in the house” and “only want to sit down and read books.” That is an excellent problem for every parent to have. We need to have much more of that.

Our admiration for verbal acuity often also serves to diminish the written word to a matter of personal opinion that can be summarily dismissed by the one with the quickest tongue and the sharpest wit. And so, we lavish national attention and resources on how well our children (as well as adults) can memorize others’ words. We give scant attention to how well our children can decipher and construct their own arguments, and demonstrate reasoning. These are all issues of literacy.

Most of us do not see it as problematic when our public officials do not read (or even understand) the very documents and policies created by their offices. Nor do some of our political pundits feel any shame in telling the public that they didn’t read documents pertaining to matters on which they are quite ready to offer opinions. The quality of “local” programming — whether on television or in performance — is generally anti-intellectual and one-dimensional. Not surprisingly then, the very avenue that we have been using to communicate with (and capture) children as “audiences” actually works against the possibility that they can even articulate what it is they are seeing, watching and jumping up to. No emphasis on literacy here.

Children’s contact with books and written material inside the classroom is often limited to the predigested and soulless material that they are forced to memorize and regurgitate on those all-important tests. The situation is often even more appalling outside the classroom. Despite claims about the wide availability of public libraries for our children, this is simply not true. In today\’s social climate, libraries are where children are sent to retrieve information that they then, like clockwork, copy and repeat verbatim in their book reports. In most academic quarters, this is a mortal sin called plagiarism. How many students (teachers? parents and caregivers?) even know this?

Similarly, bookstores are not places for children to roam and read, but where one goes once per year, usually in August, to experience enormous stress getting ready for the school year. Bookstores are where children are routinely reminded by both clerks and caregivers not to touch the books unless they are buying them. Bookstores, the few that exist, still have not figured out that sucking money out of parents’ pockets for “schoolbooks” is just a small part of their role; that is, their relevance depends on their figuring out how to bring more children and their caretakers, not less, into their stores, all year round.

The quality and content of conversation and interactive dialogue between adults and children is also quite paltry and stifling. Children are told what to think, and often in rigid, moralistic and opaque language. They are not taught how to think and question. Where’s the dictionary? The thesaurus? If one pays careful attention these days, one can actually witness the retardation of children’s ability to read and reason. Literacy out the window.

Current public policy dictates that we wait until Grade 4 to determine whether students meet the minimal guidelines. But most of us as citizens do not know what these guidelines are; many of us as adults could not even meet those same standards if we were tested! Nor is it entirely clear what programs are in place to address meet these basic needs. Taken together, these forces produce, or at least sustain, a profound cultural orientation that discourages literacy and undermines its credibility. State-of-the-art research on education and literacy shows that children’s literacy is related to how well their social environments — family, community, school, media — together, support the love of books and reading. In Jamaica, these environments are certainly working together, but to produce outcomes that should collectively embarass us.

We absolutely need to change our approach to collective self-development. But political edicts by the Ministry of Education, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association or the newspapers are not nearly enough to accomplish this. What we do need is much more creativity in how we – as individuals, members of families and communities, cultural activists, and policy advocates – respond to this issue.

For example, every community group, organization and institution can be a site for a family literacy center.

Every subject taught in school can be an avenue for developing and enhancing students\’ literacy skills.

Every community event — whether for entertainment or otherwise — can find a way to promote literacy among its audience.

Every adult who is literate should read to the children who they have contact with; they should also encourage and support adults who need to learn to read. We can make it part of our business to see that every conversation and interaction with children offers some opportunity for them to want to know more, encourages them to see literacy as a method of knowing, and empowers them to seek out the information.

We can give books and reading material away to adults and children all the time, without need for special occasion, and without hesitation.

In short, we – as individuals and as institutions – can invent as many opportunities as possible for children to have sustained interaction with the written word. If we want to. Literacy is not simply the job of teachers in formal academic environments. This is the responsibility of every one of us, regardless of where we sit, stand or lay. And frankly, I suspect that this diversity of efforts would do a much better job than educational cash-strapped bureaucracies ever could.

None of this is difficult to accomplish, and takes as much or as few resources as we have at our disposal. What is required is a clear shift in our individual and collective attitudes and values about literacy and all that it brings. Every effort counts and makes that shift possible. Jamaican individuals and small groups overseas are already doing things like building libraries in communities they have chosen to adopt. Multiplying those efforts locally and with serious commitment is bound to make a difference in children’s academic performance.

In short, when we begin to systematially dismantle the notion that literacy — and books — is a status symbol rather than a basic human right, then our children’s experiences in schools, and the broader society, will be better for it.

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