• August 6th, 2020

Opinion: The benefits and joys of studying literature

At one workshop for English teachers, there was at first strong resistance from most participants when it was suggested that literature in English should be made a compulsory subject in all schools in Namibia as one of the ways of improving the English language proficiency of not only learners, but also the teachers themselves. Note that I use the term ‘literature in English’ to include different literatures that are written using the English language – as opposed to English literature, which is literature from England. People should, therefore, not confuse literature in English and English literature.

Back to the English teachers’ workshop, it was when the participants went through the workshop, focusing on the many approaches of using literature to the benefit of the teaching and learning of English language, that the participants agreed that learners at all levels in the education system can derive pleasure, gain linguistic structures and moral lessons from studying literature in English. Today I will concentrate on some lessons that our learners and students can gain from studying literature. I will rely mostly on my experiences in teaching literature at various levels.

My mind races straight to Chinua Achebe’s classical novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. Over the years of teaching this novel, I have found that my students got hooked onto the book from the first page where the author describes the manner in which Okonkwo, the main character, walked – ‘when he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs…’  Students would always make fun of one another, describing how their friends walked in relation to Okonkwo’s manner of walking.  Some of my students earned nicknames like ‘Springy’ and ‘Bouncy’ – and we made a lot of fun out of them. Talking about nicknames, I received a call last week from one lady who introduced herself as “I’m one of your witches, sir!’ It did not take me time to realise she was one of the three students I had branded the ‘three witches’ in William Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ while in my literature class some years back. The three were always together on campus and in the classroom, and they accepted they were the ‘three witches’ in Macbeth without a fuss. And the class would tease them by saying: ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or rain?’ These are the opening lines of the play ‘Macbeth’. This provided lighter moments for the class, and everyone looked forward to the literature period.  

While the students admired how Okonkwo worked hard to become a great man in the village, especially when he inherited nothing from his poor father, they also disliked him for taking part in the sacrificial killing of the boy named Ikemefuna, a boy he had looked after for years. Likewise, the students condemned both Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, for the murder of King Duncan who had visited their household in hour of the victories scored by Macbeth in war. In both cases, we would then emphasise the moral lesson that killing others is against the law, linking it to the current scourge of gender-based violence and the senseless murders that are frequently reported in Namibia. The theme of betrayal would be discussed – betraying those who trust us. In the case of the ill-fated Ikemefuna, when he saw he was in danger from the men who were with Okonkowo, he ran to Okonkwo in trust, seeking protection and shouting, ‘My father, they have killed me.’ Instead of protecting the poor boy, “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” Similarly, Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar’ could not believe his friend Brutus was part of the conspirators who were assassinating him at the Capitol. Shocked by this betrayal, Caesar shouted ‘Et tu Brute? (‘And you too Brutus’? The lesson learnt here was that we must not trust people in many contexts. Relatives, friends and lovers can easily betray our trust and harm us.

Other students accepted the name ‘Sidi’ – the jewel in Wole Soyinka’s play ‘The Lion and Jewel’ who foolishly rejected a young man (representing modern times) and ended up being raped by the village chief (the lion), who was strongly against the modernisation of the village. In this play, it was wrong for the old man to ruin the life of the virgin girl by raping her. The theme of rape would also take us to Celie in Alice Walker’s novel ‘The Color Purple’ and her endless letters addressed to God after being raped by her stepfather. The book opens with these lines: “Dear God, I am fourteen years old, and I have been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.”  Celie thought: ‘You better… tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mummy’, but later, other women came to her rescue and taught her to have self-confidence and believe in herself despite her predicament. If you have never read this chilling story, you better look for the book ‘The Color Purple’ or watch the film. In these two cases, my students learnt not to trust men around them. These situations in the two stories could have happened to them.

They were able to discuss similar stories on rape as reported in the local media. It was also emphasised in the discussions that women needed to open up with each other about whatever is troubling them, rather than keeping quiet and trusting the problem would just come to an end.

As parting short, let us learn to have mercy on all people who have wronged us. My student learnt this from William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Portia lectured the stone-hearted Shylock about mercy: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained; it drops as gentle rain from heaven, upon the place below; It is blessed twice as it blesses him that gives and him that takes.’ This aptly summarises the essence of the divine quality of mercy.

It is worthwhile to have literature in English as a subject in our education system. Our students learn many lessons.

* Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com 

Staff Reporter
2019-11-22 08:15:37 | 8 months ago

Be the first to post a comment...