If there is one key problem which stifles the potential of Trinidad and Tobago, it is our literacy rates. Now this may surprise many people who believe the official statistics that give this country a 97 per cent literacy rating. But that figure only reflects the proportion of people who have attended primary school and, as we all know, leading a horse to water does not mean that he will drink it. A 1995 survey carried out by the University of the West Indies provides a more accurate picture, with 12 per cent of people unable to read or write, and just under half the adult populace possessing the literacy levels required for a modern society.
However, the illiteracy figure is somewhat skewed, in that it applies mostly to older people. This is why the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) was formed in 1992, and it is a measure of the need for their services that the Association sees nearly 1,000 people accessing its community classes every year. Even so, given that the pass rate in CXC English language is only 55 per cent, there is no indication that demand for ALTA's services will decline in the near future. And this surely puts a brake on ambitions to become a developed nation by 2020.
It was just five years ago that over half of 13,000 applicants to the Police Service failed the entrance exam because they had trouble with words like "chaos", "society", and "penalties", and a few years later 90 per cent of fire officers failed their promotion exam for similar reasons. In 2008, a judge even threatened two jurors with jail because he didn't believe they couldn't read their oaths.
These incidents demonstrate the need for literacy in basic areas without which a 21st century society cannot function. In a world of computers and cellphones, even labourers need to be able to read and write in order to do their jobs efficiently. And, within middle-class occupations, the volume and complexity of required reading has increased dramatically in the past two decades.
Moreover, literacy is also necessary in order to fully engage one's society. Despite our romanticising of common sense and implicit disdain for "book sense", it is hardly possible to think critically about issues like constitutional reform, smelter plants or budget measures unless you are literate. Nor is it a coincidence that the cohort of young adults who are most alienated from the society, as measured by the prison populace, are also individuals with little or no reading ability.
So, although it might not seem apparent, ALTA and related initiatives are essential in the fight against crime and other social problems. We hope the Association will continue and expand on its good work.