Tackling the nightmare of Illiteracy: our greatest educational challenge

Our nationwide LDC graduation celebrations today will enter our history books by sunset. But when we awake tomorrow morning, we will still be staring face-to-face with the massive illiteracy rate that keeps haunting us, our children and our educational system like a horror movie that won’t simply end, unless and until we deal decisively and systematically with it.

The celebrations won’t be sufficient to eclipse the fact that our illiteracy is so widespread, deep-seated and permeates our entire educational system. It will require the greatest leadership effort at all levels to conquer this dilemma.


But what is illiteracy? Illiteracy is the inability to read or write. A survey conducted in Shefa Province in 2011 to assess ‘Adult Language Literacy and Numeracy’ revealed that only 27.6% of those interviewed were classified as “literate”. Put simply, that means that over 72% of those who were surveyed were illiterate, meaning they could not read or write English. That was over 10 years ago. If a similar survey were to be carried out again today not just in Shefa province but across the country, most probably the results would reflect a far worse situation, both among our adults and also among our young primary and high school-going students.

Dr Benjamin Carson’s story

Ben Carson wanted to be a medical doctor. But he was doing so badly in school that the dream seemed a mere illusion. His mother feared total failure so she prayed for wisdom. The solution was a draconian weekly plan: ‘limit TV viewing to just three pre-selected programs, and require both Carson and [his older brother] Curtis to each read any two books they wanted from the public library and write book reports.’ This did not amuse them. But they had no choice. That was the rule. Little did the two boys know though, that their mother was illiterate. So these two boys faithfully read those books each week and submitted those weekly reports. Prior to this ‘reading’ project everybody in Ben’s elementary school class nicknamed him “dummy”. He was the worst performing student in his class. He was later quoted as saying, ‘I thought I was really stupid’. But eventually things changed. Ben rose up from being the dummy in the class to being the brightest; he went on to study at the prestigious Yale University where he eventually graduated and became the world’s most renowned neurosurgeon (brain doctor).

Broken English, Broken French, Faulty products

In an article two weeks ago I wrote on the subject of “Work Ethics and Principles”. Earlier this week another employer complained about the whole issue of ‘broken English and broken French’ as a deterrent to finding good workers in the job market. The prevalence of broken English / French roots back to teachers in schools and the students themselves and their parents. When teachers are of such substandared quality, the products they release out of schools mirrors them. Goes without saying, ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (GIGO).

It is wholly irresponsible when educational institutions perpetuate an environment where broken English and broken French are the norms and there is a laissez-faire attitude about it. Foremost of the reasons for this is the fact that this is a denial of trust against parents who want a good education and a future for their children.

Books and Reading

There were no smart phones in the days when Ben Carson and his brother were limited to 3 preselected TV programs per week. The environment today is different. I cannot emphasise the value of books enough. Self-discipline is key, both on the part of parents and students. If we cannot be bothered, then the results will show – as they already are. The greatest policies, strategies and plans we produce cannot take the place of commitment and discipline. Reading is to the mind what food is to the body.

I argue, we need to undertake massive reforms in our education sector NOW if we want to effectively address our policy ideals and interests. We need to do something about the despicable work ethics that we see prevalent in too many of our public institutions. I say this having served in, run and consulted for a few of those institutions myself over the past 15-20 years, and faced up with those attitudes in the work place where people are not willing and committed to deliver their best, yet live with this nonsensical expectation that they need to be paid well, even for inferior quality work.

Graduates past and present

A lot of the students who were trained immediately after Independence under strict disciplinary environments at Malapoa College, for instance, are the ones currently occupying the country’s leadership positions today (both in politics and in the public and private sectors and within our NGOs).

As we graduate today from LDC status, we need to answer the question ‘what is wrong with our current educational system and institutions?’ We need to find answers. Walking away from it is irresponsible and is not an option.

There is a certain nationalistic spirit these days that says that because we’ve reached ‘Yumi 40’, we need to take control and take back our institutions right away. Fully support that. But the most prominent question that begs our objective response to is, have we really prepared the people we want to take over a lot of the top positions we’re vying for? Possibly yes for some, but a big NO for quite a number. The national HRD Plan admits this, other Government sources do too. We have reached an important juncture of our development history where we seriously need to take stock of where we have been and where we really need to go with our educational sector and institutions. Wishing all a very happy LDC graduation today!

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.

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