Literature, like chess, is a game meant for the intellectual class

Friday April 26 2013


There was a time I thought that literature, like a cup of tea, could be enjoyed by all. With time and interaction with publishers, scholars, examiners and curriculum developers, I can came to the conclusion that literature, like chess, is a game of intellect.

It is not meant for people of average abilities. It belongs to a higher intellectual class.

Take the case of my university days. As an introduction, the literature lecturer informed the class of over 150 students that he had to size us down to 60 because literature was not for ‘everybody’.

‘Everybody’ here meant academic dwarfs.

Some heeded the don’s advice while others trudged on. It was, however, made clear to us that literature was tough — by the number of Cs and Ds on our transcripts. The department really made us feel that ‘literature has its owners’. But we thought literature was interesting and devoured the mountains of course books with relish.

My heart, however, goes out to secondary school students. They may not be interested in pursuing literature as a course at university, but English is a compulsory subject. So, what is wrong with their set books being simple?

For example, in the short story genre, why is it not possible to use an anthology with at least half of the stories being Kenyan? The students would identify with the setting and even the characters.

In the current set book, When the Sun Goes Down and Other Stories from Africa and Beyond, only two out of the 16 stories are by Kenyan authors.

While Brecht Bertolt’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a classic, an African play could have been chosen as the compulsory text while the former was used as the optional text. It does not help matters that the play is a play within a play and it is set at a different time in history.

Are the curriculum developers worried that the students would perform too well if they studied a play they could relate to? Probably those with average and below average ability could get more Bs and Cs than the usual Ds and Es they get and they would even enjoy learning literature.

Another intriguing issue is whether those who set examinations, especially poetry and essay questions in English Papers II and III, are secondary school teachers. Have they ever taught in district and provincial (now county) schools?

Some of the poems are wholly or largely symbolic and students interpret them in ways that really baffle the ones who mark exams. The essay questions are riddled with vocabulary that some students encounter for first time in that exam.

Do the questions have to be that complicated? I am really in praise of those who set English Paper 1. They set it in such a way that the questions on functional writing can be done by most students in the country.

I was amused by Evan Mwangi’s argument that students should write and act their own plays. I agree. Ideally, that is the way it should be. But, is he serious?

It is general knowledge that plays and other items are sold to schools by non-teachers. Even the directors are sometimes hired from out there. There is no room for literary amateurs.

A play written by students, especially from district and county schools, will be dismissed at the zonal level with remarks like the title is obvious, the language is basic, theme is simplistic and production mediocre.

If Prof Mwangi has attended the national drama festivals lately, he would have heard the bombastic titles of the plays, seen the dazzling technology in the productions, marvelled at the stilted English and wondered what the story really was amidst cryptic symbols. Most day schools cannot afford such drama.

I will not ask the curriculum developers for English to give us alternatives ‘A’ and ‘B’ like in mathematics, because no one wants to be labelled weak. However, set books that favour the majority should be chosen.

Simple poems should be published and used in exams. Poems from East Africa was never a book for beginners. Vocabulary in essays should also be reduced to bare minimum. It should not be a crime to understand and pass literature. It is really meant for all.