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Sunday 25 March 2018

Lalla’s literary grief

Prof Ramesh Deosaran

Literary. This is defined as “constituting or occupied with books, literature or written composition; well-informed about literature.” There have always been serious questions when international publications say this country has a 95 per cent literacy rate, meaning 95 per cent can read and write well. But read what? Write how? I have seen so many errors in roadside signs, media notices and students’ essays. Ask Form Four students in some schools to spell Tacarigua, mischievous, or vinyl. But it is beyond that now.

Last month, former chairman of the Police and Public Service Commissions, Kenneth Lalla SC, with obvious grief, complained; “Nobody reads in this country (Newsday, February 4)." The retired but intellectually active, Mr Lalla, ten years ago, produced an important 485-page book entitled The Public Service and Service Commissions. This book contains around 300 actual cases and 17 statutes regarding appointments, promotions, discipline, appeals, etc, within the service commissions and the evolution of the inquiries and laws which govern them. It took patience, knowledge and a dispassionate interest for this landmark accomplishment. The book was launched by my distinguished friend, Russell Martineau SC, and me.

Faced with the never-ending imbroglio over the Police Service Commission (PSC), the upset Mr Lalla lamented: “We can’t really appoint a police commissioner. It is pathetic and frustrating. After 56 years of independence, this country has not progressed. I give up. I put my hands in the air.” He added: “The book I wrote says everything that the PSC members should know but they don’t read. Even the parliamentarians, with all due respect to them.” It is a pity that Mr Lalla has to plead. The literary and intellectual culture here is so marginalised that many local authors have to put shame aside. Or go abroad.

I too grieve to see the same problems, the same views, being so recycled in mass media interviews and by policymakers. No progress. Now and again, I am tempted to do like Mr Lalla – point to my 2016 book, Crime, Inequality and Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Mask (372 pp) where the data on the growth of educational inequity stares us in the face, as if begging for policy action. Since 1994, my UWI colleagues Selwyn Ryan and Vena Jules, looking at secondary school placement, also signalled the inequity trend. We should worry. It’s getting worse.

The state of literacy is not only about reading and spelling. Alongside internet, copyright and plagiarism challenges, and as Anne Lucie-Smith observed, it is the horrors of local publishing, the lack of enthusiasm for local books by local book stores – all comfortably wrapped inside the culture of functional ignorance. Our saving grace lies with Joan Dayal’s Paper-Based Bookshop, Marina Salandy-Brown’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and Anne Lucie-Smith – a welcome literati.

Two weeks ago, Ms Lucie-Smith graciously invited me to nominate my Crime, Education and Inequality book in the current People’s Choice competition. If I do enter, I may well suffer a similar fate as my friend, Chalkdust (Hollis Liverpool). Such books belong to a narrow category, not for popular voting. Maybe soon, when I write my novel.

Educator D David Subran, pointing to the 2014 curriculum report by the late Dr Edrick Gift, said: “He produced a comprehensive report with crucial recommendations, but there was no follow-up because some officials felt indicted by it.” Catholic activist Leela Ramdeen, recalling Subran’s comments, added: “That continues to be the fate of local research (Express, February 20)."

A common problem. We could do with some improvement here, especially when you hear Mr Lalla saying: “Politicians seem to have a philosophy that the more you confuse the people, the better it is.” Reading and research cultivate critical thinking, enriching democracy.

Some of us, maybe one per cent, know this and of Mr Lalla’s grief too. Since 1992, Paula Lucie-Smith and her Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) have been trying to improve literacy standards in reading, spelling and comprehension. Not only is there a disturbing correlation between illiteracy and crime, but also between illiteracy and social class – a much higher proportion of low social class children compared to middle and upper class experience illiteracy and crime-related behaviour. It should be a very troubling matter, especially when supplied by the education system. And like Mr Lalla, we should all grieve.


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