I do not think the young, intelligent and opened-minded Minister of Education will mind me delivering again a little, well-meant lecture to her. It concerns the need to make really heroic efforts to eliminate functional illiteracy from society as a matter of absolute priority.
It has been said time and time again and I will repeat it now. Societies to the extent that they are illiterate are voiceless, powerless and culturally oppressed. They are worse off in terms of life expectation, infant mortality, educational provision, nutrition, health services and income per capita. Industries are less developed and agriculture is less productive. Functional illiteracy linked to the spread of a completely unread under-class is one of the most troubling phenomena of our time. The repercussions are profoundly negative for public administration, the growth of business, the success of investment, technological progress, cultural development and the life and death battles against poverty and drugs and crime.
However, let us not only view illiteracy as a canker which eats at the heart and soul of any nation. Let us consider the effect of illiteracy on individual human beings. It is devastating. A basic mastery of the use of language is the most vital factor in succeeding in life and leading a reasonably fulfilled existence. Every single child must be told and taught this fact in home and school repeatedly until their very nature rebels at the thought of remaining to any extent illiterate. The basic mastery of language leads to all other mastery.
You cannot hope to be a trained chemist, engineer, computer analyst, agronomist, lawyer, accountant, historian or expert in any one of a hundred other callings if you have not acquired the absolutely basic skill of how to put over orally and in writing what you know, what you have learned, what experience has taught you, what your imagination and creative spirit may be hungering to articulate. Illiteracy thwarts a thousand latent mental talents. An image that is not far-fetched is to compare a person lacking basic language skills with a person afflicted by a stroke whose mental capacity may be unimpaired but whose ability to express himself is paralysed.
I am sure the Ministry of Education is aware of this deep-seated problem and has initiated programmes to confront it. In the end it will come down to making every family, every individual, as concerned as if a deadly sickness was involved and must be treated. In every home, in every school, in every church and temple and mosque we must do what we can to give the great gift of literacy to all our children. There is nothing more fruitful that we can give. Without that seed the individual soul lies barren.
Teaching the child to read is where everything begins. The ability to read and the love of books lies at the heart of the matter. Inoculate a child with the reading skill and he or she will not easily be afflicted by the sickness of the world.
In a review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s extraordinary and searing novel Texaco Derek Walcott once wrote:
“I would press your book into the hands of every West Indian as if it were a lost heirloom, even on those who cannot read. After that formality, I would run through the markets with vendors in the shade of huge umbrellas, past abandoned fountains, stopping traffic with an uplifted hand, entering dark retail stores selling fading ledgers and disintegrating chalks, preaching, ‘You have to read this book, it is yours! It has come to reclaim you!’”
It is that feeling of desperate urgency which we must all cultivate about the need to press books into the hands and heads of Guyanese children, books of every sort from first primers through school texts to the works of our greatest writers – saying, “You have to read this book, it is yours! It has come to reclaim you!”
In the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison’s wonderful poem ‘My Will’ in which she describes the legacy she would want to leave her son there are many beautiful lines, none more beautiful than the following in which she links a love of reading to the most fundamental of human needs:
eat each day’s salt and bread
and may you never know hunger.
I mean the love of them.
Yes, that is true. May none of our children go hungry – for food or for books, the love of them.