In the recent past, Dr Godwin Siundu and his former teacher Prof Peter Amuka have reacted to a comment I made about postmodernism and it offshoot postcolonialism.
They placed their responses within the context of the teaching of literature and saw my position as reactionary and counter –revolutionary.
I want to begin my rejoinder by recounting an experience I had about two years ago when I was invited to speak at a writing workshop for high schools in Western Kenya and the adjoining parts of the Rift Valley. The workshop which was held at a girls high school was sponsored by PEN International.
I have said elsewhere that living in the savannah’s of East Africa over 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, our ancestors, invented language in order to tell stories.
By so doing, they created an inalienable link between language and literature. But in order to effectively tell stories, they invented a unit of communication called the sentence. And they agreed that for a sentence to be meaningful it had to have a subject and predicate. But how often do we hear people say stuff like “Am doing research”, thereby ending up with a construction that doesn’t have a subject? They omit the pronoun “I” which would have served as the subject of the sentence.
I had intended this to be one of my talking point at the writing workshop. But I changed my mind when the principal invited me and my co-facilitators to her office.
“Gentlemen, please feel welcome to this school. It’s good the organisers chose our school as the venue for the workshop”, she said effusively. Then looking at me she added “Professor, I have heard a lot about you. Like you, I teach English”.
As she was talking, my eyes strayed to an inner door that seemed to lead to another chamber. And on that door, I read the words: “AM PROUD OF MY SCHOOL”. I didn’t want to embarrass the good lady; so I decided not talk about that particular grammatical mistake.
Dr Siundu speaks disparagingly about stylistics which he mistakenly calls a theory. Stylistics merely speaks to the link our ancestors forged between language and literature.
Throughout my educational career, I was made to believe that literary works were models of good writing which addressed concerns about ours shared humanity .
Some works did this better than others, and this was where literary criticism came in. I don’t know about other schools, but all the teachers who taught us language at Friends School Kamusinga were literature graduates.
This brings me to Professor Amuka’s extravagant claim that there was a revolution in the teaching of literature which was hatched by Ngugi wa Thiongo’s, Taban lo Liyong, and the late Owuor Anyumba.
Maybe Amuka knows something about these three men that I’m not aware of; but what is in the public domain is that they Africanised the literature syllabus and proposed the subject be taught from an Afrocentric perspective.
But let me tell the good professor that what he is calling a revolution was in fact an unmitigated disaster.
In all the forums I attended in the 1980s, we were told that high school principals were complaining about their literature teachers.
These products of the “revolution” told their bosses they could not teach language. And what was particularly scandalous was that they said they could not teach poetry.
People who had supposedly been exposed to models of good writing could not teach skills like composition writing; and they were not equipped to handle features such as diction, imagery, metre, and rhythm in poetry.
And instead of teaching fiction as creative works, they used it as a springboard for ignorant political guesswork.
So, over the years, because of what Professor Amuka calls a revolution, we have been producing graduates in literature and in other disciplines who cannot string together a decent English sentence, let alone craft a paragraph that holds together as a unit of composition.
Maybe the professor does not live in this country; if he did, he would know that many employers have been complaining about the communication skills of our graduates. Some of these employers send these graduates to the British Council for retraining in this area. Many of our leaders, even those with degrees, employ ghost writers to write their life stories. And most shockingly, a number of our PhD candidates have to look for some writing experts to help them write their theses.
Lets’s now talk about what annoys the two scholars the most, namely my reference to the platitudes of postmodernism and postcolonialism. As I have said, the former gave rise to the latter; so we probably don’t need to quibble over semantics.
For those readers who might want to understand the nature of my dispute with postmodernists, let me break it down for you. These people don’t believe in absolute truth; to them all truth is relative .They don’t believe in a metanarrative; they believe in little, individual stories, with their little truths. They don’t believe in a correct reading of a text; to them, any reading could be a misreading. They don’t believe there are standards by which literary works should be judged; so to them Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be bracketed together with some cheap script at the Kenya National Drama Festival. They don’t believe you need to research into the life of the author; to them, the author is dead and buried. And what is most disturbing, they don’t believe in an overarching human identity, that we are part of the human family; instead, they believe that we belong to any number of identities -- national, racial, ethnic, sexual and so on. And related to this, they don’t believe in universal values.
Postmodernism has wreaked havoc on the knowledge industry that we call research. When I was a graduate student in the US in the mid-1970s, we were advised to identify a research problem first, then look for a theory that would assist in solving the problem. In other words, the theory would be part of the solution. But nowadays, graduate students typically identify a theory first and then look for a text on which to apply the theory. In simple English, they identify a solution and then search for the problem that suits the solution. And even if in the end, we award a piece of paper called a PhD, we labour in vain.
So, even if Prof Amuka and Dr Siundu were to threaten me with the worst form of torture – like walking barefoot on burning coals – I would still not subscribe to this intellectual fraud that goes by the name Postmodernism.
The writer teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi