Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Flogging a dead horse (education in Cayman)

Outside observers must wonder at the low priority accorded to education by our Island politicians. Such a large proportion of school-leavers are functionally illiterate, for an international tax-haven and financial centre. As long as native-Caymanians’ employment prospects are protected by law, why worry how good or bad their education is? As long as Caymanians are given impressive titles, who cares if the titles are dismissed as “token” and undeserved by their expat colleagues and overseas clients?

Over the past few decades, hundreds of millions of borrowed dollars have been poured down the drain of an education system whose Caymanian alumni cannot compete with expats in the workplace. Even the most aggressive and comprehensive affirmative-action program in the world can’t save 10% of Caymanians from being unemployed in their home community. For every Caymanian school-leaver, there are (in effect) two bureaucrats assigned to ensure that he or she gets a well-paid job in a community where two thirds of the workforce are expats. Still it’s not enough. Ours is surely the most ineffectual education system imaginable.

 My blog-post “Everybody’s cheating” in December 2010 reported the tricks played by both sides in the game (employers and the Immigration Monster). I won’t repeat them here; suffice it to say that nothing has changed since then. Nothing is ever likely to change, really. The Immigration authorities have a vested interest in maintaining a boondoggle that’s devoid of any productive purpose; and the education establishment is not required to do any more than go through the motions. The politicians – all bloodline Caymanians, by rule – are so supremely remunerated in office that they have no incentive to change the status quo.

The educational shortfalls cover a range of inadequacies: spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage (English), mental arithmetic (Math), basic knowledge of foreign nations and cultures (Geography, History, comparative religions). Of those items, the most important is English. Non-standard grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation are, in the world at large, marks of ignorance. They are often taken to indicate low intelligence, too, on the premise that the offenders aren’t smart enough to learn the rules. Sometimes, defying the rules is taken to be arrogance.

Yeah, yeah, but who’s watching? Who really minds if somebody can’t point to Libya or Los Angeles on a map? Who is genuinely bothered by non-standard grammar or spelling? This is Cayman, and Caymanians have a basic human right to speak and spell the way they’ve always done, haven’t they? Well, actually, no: not if they are ever going to be respected in their careers by non-Caymanians.

Look. Cayman is a sophisticated international tax-haven with some rich and fussy clients who don’t want to deal with anybody they perceive to be ignorant, or arrogant. The customer is always right, right? Everybody in business has to accede to his clients’ preferences. One will be forgiven for not knowing how long a chukka lasts, but one will be expected to know what sport it features in. And to know the difference between a chukka and a chucker, of course, if one is talking to a rich and fussy Englishman.

Caymanians’ low educational achievements – and their 10% unemployment – are directly attributable to the affirmative-action program in place for the past forty years. You’d think that somebody would care enough about the future to challenge the continuation of a failed system. Several private-sector committees have urged alternative remedies, over the years. At least some of their Minutes and reports still exist. Why do our local rulers persist in flogging a dead horse? Will it be another forty years before they wake up to the utter futility of such a stupid ritual? Sigh. Maybe it will be.