Monday, April 18, 2011

Glass Ceilings, Again (protectionism in Cayman)

According to a website I came across the other day called Trading Economics, Cayman’s literacy was 99% in 1997, and no change has been registered since. It’s good to know that government’s Statistics Unit actually does produce some figures in exchange for its generous annual budgets, although one must wonder just how accurate its work is.

That 99% is of all residents aged 15 and over. Were they all literate in English, do you think? Or would Tagalog and Jamaican patwa warrant ticking the “yes” column? Or, is the 99% an out-and-out guess? Ah well, it looks good on the charts...

The dividing line between literate and illiterate is generously drawn at any time. How literate is “literate”? What exactly is “functional illiteracy”? It is hugely disappointing that Cayman’s educational authorities have been (apparently) so dismissive of the need to raise the standards of literacy in our Islands. And “need” is exactly the right word.

Our politicians’ position is that employers’ prejudices are responsible for the contentious glass ceilings that limit the promotions of true-born Caymanians. By their silence, the education authorities support that position. Whereas, in fact, it is the mindless protectionism of politicians and their cronies that creates the ceilings. If they truly cared about Caymanian children instead of the preservation of their bureaucratic empires, they would have abolished the ceilings long ago.

How? By working to a sensible definition of literacy- not the minimalist definition of persons “who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.” That’s not nearly enough. Cayman’s sophisticated offshore financial services industry requires a level of literacy that bears no relation to the levels in communities of subsistence farmers, for instance. Do our bureaucrats understand that? If so, why do they settle for the false comfort of the minimalist definition?

Cayman’s businessmen operate in the real world. The glass ceilings are put in place to block the advancement of persons whose literacy levels are inadequate for the jobs they are paid to do. And, regrettably, despite all the bitter complaints by Caymanians, the hated glass ceilings are too porous by half. Most customers of local businesses are regularly shocked by the number of barely literate individuals (in the context of the sophisticated language-skills expected in a rich little community like ours) who have somehow managed to burst through the ceilings.

For an alarming number of Caymanians in relatively high administrative positions, even such basic grammatical constructs as past participles are terra incognita (as, indeed, are such relatively common foreign-language terms as terra incognita). “I have learn the lesson”, we read; to which the only meaningful retort is, “no you ain’t!” Conjugating verbs is a minefield, too. “The boats is loss at sea.” “No they ain’t!” Spoken, “boats is loss” may grudgingly receive the benefit of any doubt; written, it is unforgivable. Yet mistakes of that kind are written every day, in letters and e-mails.

It’s a sad situation. Correct grammar and usage are second nature to those of us who were taught well. The credit belongs to our teachers; there is no inherent ability to speak or write well in any language. Those who do, have no right to look down on those whose language-skills are inferior. And yet it’s human nature that they do; and when barely literate clerks are in the presence of Offshore Clients, for instance, it matters.

Poor language-skills signal low intelligence, however unfair that is. It’s a cruel world. In a small and intimate community like ours, there is no reason why Caymanians need be handicapped in that way. Our education strategy must take the blame for the glass ceilings.