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Setbooks learning has place in real life

In Summary
  • Literature invites students to imaginative worlds that widen and deepen their lives and experiences
  • The value of setbooks or literature is to enable students to develop communication and critical appreciation skills
An English language arts curriculum without literature—real, named books of lasting importance—is no English Curriculum at all
Dianne Ravitch

The Star edition of March 4, 2021, published an article by Mwalimu Ashford Gikunda questioning the relevance of Literature in the education of learners in secondary schools.

In an article entitled, Setbook learning has no place in real life, Gikunda claimed that literature—be it in English or Kiswahili languages—is a waste of the children's time.

He gives the following reasons: That teaching literature does not offer employable skills and that it has not produced a writer of eminence like Ngugi wa Thiong'o or Chinua Achebe. Instead of teaching setbooks, Gikunda suggests, students should be taught how to write project proposals and scriptwriting for their own films and possibly for filmmaking.

Gikunda is dead wrong. The purpose of Basic Education—the first 12 years of learning in Kenya—is to develop the individual to his fullest capacity. To do this, educational systems provide opportunities for learners to acquire knowledge and understand and develop character, skills, and abilities through study and experience.

Embedded in English and literature in the secondary school curriculum is knowledge, skills, values and experiences that have the capacity to trigger multiple aptitudes innate in learners which are applicable across many occupations, beyond scriptwriting.

Policymakers the world over want schools to enable children to learn and accomplish certain things once they complete basic education. Students completing the basic education cycle must have the fundamental skills—ability to read, and mathematical and communication skills.

They should also be able to think and think for themselves when they are out in the world. They must also demonstrate good character and make sound decisions about life and work. They must also learn basic science and understand emerging problems and issues so they can help to search for solutions.

The educational experience should be such that they are in a position to demonstrate resilience or courage and be kind in dealing with other people. They must also demonstrate respect and tolerance for diversities that exist in society.

That is in a nutshell what society wants children to acquire in schools—as a basis for further education, training or employment.

Literature—novels, plays, poetry, folklore— is an integral part of the curriculum in secondary schools. It invites students to imaginative worlds that widen and deepen their lives and experiences. In Literature, students imaginatively or vicariously participate in the joys and struggles and crises of the human spirit. Attentive reading of the setbooks and other books of similar cultural and intellectual rigour nourishes or purges the hearts and souls of students.

The aim of the humanities, which literature is part of, is not to impart skills for employment, even though exposure to good literature develops in students excellent verbal and written communication skills.

The literature curriculum is also designed in ways that nurture critical appreciation skills. Good teachers use the setbooks to teach students what to look for in literature, and helps them to respect and appreciate literature. The skills help students to understand and appreciate any work of art in terms of structure, theme, tone, style, the author’s purpose and other reasons.

Let’s remember that literature deals with human beings and how they respond to and are affected by their environment—physical and intangible. All the 40 books Gikunda titles (like all good literary works) students have studied under the 8-4-4 system since 1986 have characters or humans grappling with obstacles—physical and intangible obstacles.

The obstacles or constraints might be caused by fellow humans or acts of God. Whichever way, the characters—the fictional humans in the books—must overcome the obstacles so they can lead worthwhile lives befitting their humanity.

It is in this light that FGM in the Blossoms of the Savannah by Henry ole Kulet, a KCSE setbook, must be seen. A teacher misleads students when he sees FGM literally. Looked at figuratively, FGM stands for any cultural practice that holds back the potential of a group of people within the Maa or any community in Kenya or anywhere in the world.

A work of art is allegorical. It has layers upon layers of meaning. It takes highly sophisticated critical appreciation skills to look at characterisation and incidents in a work of art beyond their face value.

I am very afraid that Mwalimu Gikunda might have missed the boat during his reading of Blossoms of the Savannah. We have FGM in The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The killing of twins and even the tragic killing of Ikimefuna, in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The cultural practices in the books have not in any way lost their relevance just because the Kikuyu and Umofia communities stopped circumcising their girls and killing their twins respectively.

Embedded in the storyline or the plot are values, aspirations, assumptions, affirmations and negations of certain things, either good or bad.

The aim of the humanities, which literature is part of, is not to impart skills for employment, even though exposure to good literature develops in students excellent verbal and written communication skills. The aim is not even to adjust learners to life or to the mass civilisation that we face all round. The aim of literature, the aim of the humanities is to enlighten and inspire humanistic ideals that have shaped civilisations; ideals that help guide a person’s thought and conduct when alone, in a group or in an institution.

The value of setbooks or literature is to enable students to develop communication and critical appreciation skills. It is these skills that students apply in all manner of careers. People with superior scriptwriting skills have a background in literature. So are journalists and public relations. Political leaders and corporations in the public and private sector with transformative potential have a bowing acquaintance with literature.

Mwalimu Gikunda was dead wrong. Setbooks learning has a place in real life.