One day the mother of a Kenyan teenage schoolboy died. His science teachers and the school authorities agreed with the family not to tell the boy.
You see, he had to dissect a frog that day as part of his practical tests for the final Cambridge School Certificate examinations. Giving him news of his mother’s death would gravely upset him and jeopardise his chances at the examination.
This “dilemma-like” incident is presented in a play, The Game of Silence, by the late Francis Imbuga. Though less popularly known than most of the other works of the celebrated dramatist, it is arguably his most reflective text. I still have vivid memories of the powerful interpretations of it, in the late 1970s, by Paul Onsongo and Gichugu Makini at the UoN Education Theatre Two.
Three recent developments, however, set me thinking again about dissecting frogs.
The first is the inauguration in Kenya of the new “competence-based” curriculum, about which we chatted some time ago.
ARTS VS SCIENCES
Secondly, I shared with my Facebook friends a memory of a talk that I gave at Makerere in 2014. I called it ‘Literature and the crisis in the humanities’.
The gist of my presentation was that there was a worrying trend in educational circles to downgrade and degrade the humanities (disciplines like Literature, Performing Arts, Language, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies and the Social Sciences) while enthusiastically praising and supporting the sciences. The distinction is popularly made simply between the “arts” and the “sciences”, the latter denoting the natural sciences, like biology, physics and chemistry, and technology.
My take was that, while we are all aspiring towards a scientific and technologically competent society, we should with equal seriousness strive towards a civilised, cultured and humane society.
Our education should not, therefore, be either sciences or humanities (arts), but, emphatically, both sciences and humanities.
The current tendency among our policy-makers to deny the humanities recognition, funding and sponsorship while pampering the sciences with all the available resources is unacceptable and harmful to society. We may end up producing armies of clever scientists through our lopsided concentration on the sciences.
But if they are lacking in human and social skills, like ethics, language and communication, gender sensitivity and conflict resolution, they will be merely pathetic robots.
The response to my “memory” was overwhelming, with many of my friends both contributing to the points I had raised and also seeking from me further clarification of some of those points. Those especially close to me even asked me to “translate” or re-state the points in Kiswahili, a challenge (changamoto) which I will be glad to meet.
But the third and most important development that sent me considering the dissection of frogs is a recent Ugandan proposal for the review of the salaries of some public service employees.
The salaries are, in most cases, being considerably raised, and among those likely to benefit are policemen, court prosecutors, medical practitioners and secondary school science teachers.
That sounds like good news, does it not? I think I told you that my father was a policeman, and I have always known that those people deserve special consideration.
Equally importantly, as a lifelong teacher, I cannot but rejoice at the prospect of teachers being offered a living wage.
My worry, however, is that the proposals mentioned only science teachers. If that implies that the others, the “arts” teachers, are not included in the salary raise, they will end up being paid a much lower salary than their colleagues in the “sciences”.
The policy-makers suggest two main reasons for giving special consideration to the science teacher. One is that there is an urgent need to encourage and promote the sciences in the country.
The second, closely related to that, is that science teachers need incentives to stop them leaving the service or even the country in search of greener pastures elsewhere.
That may sound like, well, “sound” reasoning, but it is untenable within the context of what we have said above and, especially, within the school working environment.
To begin with, “teaching” in a school is much more than doling out knowledge about a particular subject, whether it is English or Physics. It is “education”, bringing up our young charges through both curricular and co-curricular activities.
How are we going to persuade underpaid “arts” teachers to pull the same weight as their privileged “science” colleagues within the system?
In any case, the problem of people seeking greener pastures elsewhere cannot be solved by arbitrary preferential treatment of the “scientists”.
If competent “arts” teachers, in subjects like Language, Religious Studies, Fine Art and Communication Skills, feel that they are being undervalued, they, too, will walk away.
I have evidence of many of my own graduates, in Languages, Literature and Drama, being in high demand all over the region and beyond.
It should also be noted that teaching any lesson properly, whether in Kiswahili, CRE or Chemistry, takes the same amount of preparation, energy and time.
Dissecting a frog in a biology lab is probably as demanding as dissecting a Literature or scriptural text in an arts class. We call the dissection of a text either “exegesis” in Scripture or explication and “practical criticism” in Literature.
Dissecting a frog may lead to medical benefits. But equally importantly, properly dissecting a text can lead to good governance and social harmony.
After all, we live by texts. You heard of people fighting pitched battles, in Parliament, over a Constitution, which is a text. That obviously betrayed a signal failure of communication skills and conflict resolution, which only the humanities can impart.
Even getting to eternal happiness may depend on your competent dissection of texts, whether they say that “God has a Son” or that God “neither bears nor is born”.
That cannot be handled in a science laboratory, or can it?
As for the “arts” not creating jobs, ask Rwanda about their urgent need for properly trained theologians to lead and “pastor” the hundreds of spiritual institutions there.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]