EXPANDING WORLD VIEW

Timeless relevance of great works of literature

In Summary
  • African novel writing is a fairly recent phenomenon. European writing spans centuries
  • Students of literature, thus, improve their appreciation of life in all its facets, when exposed to world literature

Professor of literature and stylistics Henry Indangasi has, when occasion demands, expressed reservations about curriculum changes in the Literature department after a conference on the Teaching of Literature held at Nairobi School in 1974.

He has unapologetically argued the changes had a negative effect on the teaching and appreciation of literature in our political culture.

Ideally, a course in literature should help students to demonstrate critical thinking skills as readers and writers.

Faculties of literature aim to develop certain skills in students. They aim to, for example, develop and refine critical thinking and writing skills for analysing individual texts from various genres. They also promote a study and understanding of societies, cultures, traditions and history through literary texts from across the globe.

Finally, they also train students in critical theory and current literary research methods to help them initiate specialised and interdisciplinary research helpful to those who opt for advanced degrees.

The changes to the curriculum was a reaction to what critics saw as a body of works dominated by literary canon. The term refers to a body of books, narratives and other texts considered to be the most important and influential in western civilisation—Europe and America.

English departments of literature in universities during the colonial period were largely composed of the so-called literary canon. The curriculum excluded books of compelling literary merit in Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world.

Tragically, the change in the English curriculum appears to have led to the loosening or weakening of standards in the choice of books for study at university. Students are needlessly cut off from a variety of literary works that have the capacity to develop their critical and analytical skills, to say nothing of the creativity and imagination that attend excellent teaching of good works of art.

Therefore, the changes envisaged at the conference on the Teaching of Literature was an argument against the biases in the canon. This was laudable to the extent that the convenors of the conference argued for recognition and inclusion of works by Africans in the teaching of literature.

Something terrible happened nevertheless. European literature became an optional paper or unit at the University of Nairobi—save for those majoring in the subject at undergraduate level. Result? Many literature students join the world of work, including as teachers, without knowledge and appreciation of world literature.

African novel writing is a fairly recent phenomenon. European writing—be it in the novel, poetry and drama—spans centuries. Students of literature improve their appreciation of life in all its facets, when they are exposed to world literature. Literature is the best medium for instilling intercultural competence. The concept denotes the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Students of literature cannot readily appreciate the theories or assumptions that underpin the discipline without the illustrations of the principles and models of the literary movements or peculiar form of writing, thinking and feelings western literature embodies.

Tragically, the change in the English curriculum appears to have led to the loosening or weakening of standards in the choice of books for study at university. Students are needlessly cut off from a variety of literary works that have the capacity to develop their critical and analytical skills, to say nothing of the creativity and imagination that attend excellent teaching of good works of art.

The change in the curriculum also led to the narrowing of the scope of literature. The literature or English curriculum is overly dominated by fictional works.

Literature programmes should have fictional and nonfictional works. Transaction in ordinary business of life is captured through nonfictional functional writing. Students need functional writing skills as they need the creative and imaginative powers fictional works develop in them.

The catholicity of the concerns of literature demands that departments of literature—a liberal education discipline—be as inclusive as possible. Exclusivity denies students the opportunities to sample the accumulated heritage of mankind from all lands, civilisations and periods.

Under the fictional works, students should have outstanding texts from Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia, in poetry, drama, and prose. The programme should also have folklore—the oldest type of literature, and the foundation on which culture was built. These are tales and fables not just from Africa, but from other civilisations as well. We have restricted the teaching of folklore to African oral tales; thus ignoring folklore from Western and Asian civilisations as well as Native American and Aboriginal communities in New Zealand and Australia.

Nonfiction works are just as creative, imaginative and spell bounding in finesse of language, thought and feeling as fiction. Examples of these categories of literature are personal essays such as speeches, letters, diaries, biographies, memoirs, scientific papers and public papers such as reports on a public policy problem bedevilling society. 

Departments of literature in American universities teach fictional and nonfiction works. They teach essays, letters, speeches, folklore. It is under these that great essayists such as Montaigne, Emerson, David Henry Thoreau, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steel are taught.

Our departments of literature must similarly teach nonfiction works to meet the aesthetic standards that define great thinking and visioning as expressed in words. The acknowledged vehicle for literature.

The catholicity of the concerns of literature demands that departments of literature—a liberal education discipline—be as inclusive as possible. Exclusivity denies students the opportunities to sample the accumulated heritage of mankind from all lands, civilisations and periods. Emerging literary critics in some of our universities are, strangely, questioning the relevance of the works of pioneer African writers as subject of study in educational institutions.

Communications officer, Ministry of Education