BREAKING

THE SILENCE OF UN-KNOWING

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BY TOM ODHIAMBO

If you opened the literature and culture pages of the Saturday Nation, you’d imagine that there is a national disaster in the country. There are endless complaints about the state of the English language and Literature in our schools. There are cries about the poor use – or is it usage – of English. Apparently thousands of school going children in Kenyan can’t write or spell in proper English. We don’t hear much about Kiswahili though. There are tens of outpourings of nostalgia, of the days when Kenyans apparently spoke proper and clean English. But there is little or no talk at all about how to remedy this malady; if we assume that the school system’s language and literature organs are in the intensive care unit.

I think much of the talk about the poor state of language and literature in our schools is exaggerated. Some of the people preaching today about the sorry state of language use by school leavers were the “consultants” when the syllabus was “integrated”. Some of them have been “training” teachers for decades. Is it the teachers who are poor or the trainers’ methodologies? Many people who title themselves professors in these pages, decrying the poverty of language and literature in Kenya, have never proposed that we have a national meeting on this subject, overhaul the English syllabus and retire the hundreds of “subject specialists”, who purportedly advise the government on education, but whose main job is to recast past examinations papers and sell to gullible high school language and literature teachers. How does a self respecting school cheat in the English examination? Isn’t this the medium through which all teaching from primary one to the end of high school?

Let’s abuse Achebe’s words and ask: where did the rain begin to beat us? Yes, when did things begin to rot? There is consensus that it was when English language and literature in English were integrated. That is the moment when all manners of charlatans appeared all over high schools claiming that they could teach English. Why? Because they could speak it. Why again? Because there were just about two or three texts to read for examinations at KCSE. Only that? No, you didn’t even need to teach the course. All you needed was a guide book, apparently written by some fellow who had 10 years experience of teaching English, not necessarily in teaching literature. Or simply buy papers from one of the “national” schools, make the examination class revise them throughout the year and voila! Or simply cheat, in English! And cheating must be blamed on the KNEC – they are paid to administer the examinations and any failure in that process is their failure.

Truth be told, the language situation is dire in our schools. In many schools – I have been to a few to assess my students on teaching practice – there are no books. Not even class readers recommended by the ministry of Education. In some where there are class readers, there are no extra books, which mean that the learner can’t read beyond the classroom. Many schools have no library; where there is a library it is often too small for the student population. And even if books are available, the teachers themselves aren’t readers. So, they can’t motivate their pupils to read beyond the books the course requires.

Some of the primary and high school teachers of English and literature are actually unable to read properly. I teach postgraduate students at the University of Nairobi and have had the unfortunate experience of meeting Master of Arts in Literature students who can’t spell or pronounce some basic words that a good learner in the fourth year of primary schooling should be able to. Often, they also can’t read passages from stories articulately. But what shattered my faith in these teachers and teacher-trainees is when a few months ago my MA students claimed that they couldn’t read 26 books in a semester. They insisted that these were too many. Surprisingly the class before that had managed 56 books. How can one teach language and literature without reading? The point I am making here is that we have huge numbers of ill-prepared teachers of language and literature who, in turn, are ill-preparing learners in public schools right from the kindergarten. So, why do we blame children who fail to pass examinations?

Then, of course, there is the legendary intransigence of those in charge of the syllabus. From the KICD to KNEC to the ministry of Education, no one seems to know what to do about the ever deteriorating standards in our schools. What is so difficult about reviewing and changing the system, if the past three decades have shown that the 8-4-4 system has major handicaps? If we can’t have one major overhaul, why not then do periodical changes? Why not benchmark our system with some of the best in the world, such as Singapore, South Korea or even our new darling, China? Or is this some kind of evil project where those in the know put the children of the poor through a dysfunctional system whilst their progenies are academically caressed in IGCSE and IB? Is it that there are too many vested interests at KICD to ever change the system, or that the rumored money making machine at KNEC is too strong to undo?

But what about the general learning conditions in our schools? What is the state of the classrooms, study rooms, libraries, dormitories, when it is a boarding school etc? Many public schools just don’t have the requisite infrastructure. Classrooms are cramped; students sleep head-to-toe in the dorms; the dining halls don’t have adequate furniture; students carry around their dishes, cups and cutlery and have to wash and store them after meals; books are shared by tens of learners and in some cases there are no grounds for sports and recreation.

I wonder how learners can thrive, even if it is just in English and literature alone. If the learning and physical environments are as bad as they appear in many of our schools, why should we expect the learners to be competent in the way they speak, write and express themselves creatively? If the school day is spent worrying about the state of food, shelter, health, learning and general welfare, where is the time left for the students to interact freely and learn to be civic subjects?

In some cases, actually many of the cases, the teachers are absent from school and when present they don’t spend enough time in class to motivate the learners. Many learners simply copy notes from books, rehash what is in these books during exams and eventually graduate without any critical thinking skills. It has been reported so often in the press that the teachers themselves are often incompetent in the very courses they are supposed to help the learners pass. An anecdote is told of how nearly 50 per cent of the teachers who turn up to mark English composition and Insha, in Kiswahili, failed to pass the subject.

So, shouldn’t we talking about how to make the learners better than cursing the “children of today” as “too lazy”? I don’t buy into the laziness story. Let’s make our teachers work – many of the teachers who complain about the poor learning habits of children in public schools work quite hard to produce better learners when they teach in private schools.

Therefore, let’s motivate our public school teachers with better pay and working environment and insist that they deliver what they are paid to do.

We should also supply the school with books and learning aids. Too many schools just don’t have books, free education or no free education. How can learning happen where children in year 4 of primary school haven’t ever held a book in their hands? A personal interaction with a book is a private encounter with the author and the story, and therefore a significant moment of individual learning. We have to do this if we wish to have educated learners exiting primary and secondary schools.

What about the environment at home? Do parents ever buy their children books? Do they ever pull them away from the TV or radio or the cellphone so that they read newspapers, magazines or even e-books, for those children who are “hooked” onto the Internet? Do parents reinforce teachers’ work? It seems that many parents seem to think everything to do with language and literature begins and ends at school. And yet children learn a lot from the immediate environment. If you “murder” your English, your child will “assassinate” it. If you can’t read even the Bible – one of the greatest works of literature – your child will never learn even a proverb.

The point to remember is to listen to Paulo Freire’s words, to “humanise” our children. He says:
“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
We have to make our young people, in schools and colleges, human enough by helping them to be able to speak, to break the silence of unknowing, and therefore to name their world and understand it.

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