Thursday, November 21, 2013

Children without books

[As with so many of my blog-posts, this one is of general application, not just to Cayman.]

Cayman’s government schools are failing most of their pupils. The Education Establishment and the local media concentrate their attention on the minority of academically bright pupils, while ignoring the majority of academically dull ones. High-school graduations are a topic of scorn. (“Academically dull” is NOT the same as “stupid”, by the way.) My February post Protection versus Education explained the origin of this system.

There are various reasons why some children are disadvantaged. Being raised in homes by parents who disrespect the virtues of discipline and learning is one; being distracted by shiftless siblings or companions is another. But most of the blame rests on homes without books.

Homes without books rarely produce children who can read comfortably or write grammatically. Even in this Internet Age, books are an essential base for learning. You can buy a book for ten or twenty cents at a yard sale, leave it behind somewhere, and replace it for the same price at the next yard sale.

Cayman’s charity “op” shops are replete with books. The Humane Society’s are relatively expensive, but the NCVO and Red Cross don’t have many books priced higher than fifty cents. The George Town Library occasionally flogs hard-cover books for 25 cents. I have shelves full of tatty old books on history and geography that I value highly.

A home without books is no proper place for a child, and it reflects poorly on our local rulers in the Civil Service and Legislative Assembly that such homes exist in Cayman. Considering the tens of billions of dollars raised by our government over recent decades, there should be no Caymanian child forced by circumstances to live without books. How could our representatives get their priorities so wrong, in such a tiny community?

While politicians and Civil Servants “earn” their wages and pensions by shuffling papers, our private-sector leaders concern themselves with newspaper photographs of large cheques for college scholarships. Each photo buys an extra Work Permit or two, so it’s a good investment; but there’s no investment of thought and care. Cayman doesn’t need more college graduates, as much as it needs a local labour force that is literate.

Local business organisations fall short of what they should be doing. After all, their members are forced by law to hire semi-illiterate high-school graduates and to educate them on the job. Yet the Chamber of Commerce, Cayman Finance, the Tourism Association and the rest all pursue their agendas without focussing on the prospect of a permanently alienated and illiterate underclass. For half the price of a photo-op scholarship, every bookless child in Cayman could be helped towards a productive future.

Fancy-shmancy schools don’t fix literacy, and aren’t necessary to education at any level. Rather, they are monuments to vanity, and provide no help for academic under-achievers. Before our government’s coffers became awash with money from the tax-haven, the children of the Islands were taught at home by their mothers or casual tutors. That wasn’t such a bad thing.

My brother and I were taught at home on the farm by our mother, until a one-room shack was knocked up by the local men out of slab-timber. The State Education Department 250 miles away provided moral support and a 17-year-old teacher straight from training-college.

The school opened with thirteen pupils, aged from four to eight. The room measured eighteen feet by twelve; it had one door and two window-spaces with board-shutters. No air-con, no fans. Older Caymanians will relate to that – and to the slates and those slate-pencil things that had to be sharpened on the nearest rock. No school dinners, no cold drinks, no flushing toilets, no fans. Did I mention there were no fans? No fans. We dripped sweat onto our books, just like we did at home.