Last year, The Nation published Jack McBrams’ article, headlined Enough with Shakespeare.
This sharply contrasts Peter Nietzsche’s take, Nothing wrong with Shakespeare, in support of continued teaching and learning of the English literary giants’ offerings in Malawi.
McBrams wants Shakespeare-loving curriculum developers to leave secondary school students free to learn Legson Kayira and William Kamkwamba, the Kasungu-born boy who built a windmill from scrap metal to beat hunger.
On the other hand, Nietzsche wants Shakespeare’s plays to remain in the syllabus because they not only teach learners the value of human life and how people live but also help groom better teachers and scholars of English literature.
The two are saying the same thing, albeit differently.
We will miss the point if schools discard Shakespeare, claiming that his works cannot adequately inspire young Malawians as would Kamkwamba and Kayira.
The style, themes and characters in Shakespeare’s literary works are timeless and universally applicable. They constitute the bible of English literature.
The youth in post-colonial Malawi have such stories to inspire them as they tell theirs.
Popularising Shakespeare might have helped impose British culture on colonies, including Malawi.
However, it is unjust for proponents of decolonisation to ignore how Shakespeare has inspired Malawians to write their stories, poems and plays.
If that is true, we have not properly studied him.
I would say the same about Kamkwamba. If we do not properly study The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, his exploits may not adequately inspire solutions-thinking in young Malawians.
The nation requires children’s versions of Shakespeare and Kamkwamba’s works as supplementary reading for primary schools.
Additionally, Malawi should groom better teachers of English literature and improve how schools teach the subject.
I know several passionate teachers of English literature, but those who drag their feet are not few either.
Before blaming Shakespeare, let us ask ourselves: who is teaching your child English literature? What qualifications do they hold? Do they have opportunities to upgrade their expertise? Do they practice literature?
Some literature teachers graduated without reading Shakespeare. All they read were pamphlets and summaries they parrot when teaching.
Is that Shakespeare’s problem too?
Schools can do better.
From childhood, people listen to stories for moral lessons. However, we might be overdoing it.
Students should not only read stories to describe characters, identify settings, explain themes and key lessons.
Why are they not learning creative writing and style?
That is the reason many learners cannot write a sensible short story, poem or play by the time they reach Form 4.
Talking about drama, how many teachers challenge learners to stage the plays they study?
Junior students learn Bernard Ashley’s The Play of a Little Soldier just as their senior peers study Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These are just starters.
Teachers can use any text to groom students into writers and actors.
The real joy for a teacher of literature should be seeing students publishing books, acting or directing films and stage plays.
In short, the two Williams deserve space in our curriculum for students to get double-benefit and emulate the William of their choice.
However, there is a need to revisit how literature is taught in many schools. Since the curriculum review is already underway, the Malawi Institute of Education and relevant stakeholders can use this critical juncture to change the objective of teaching literature in schools.
We cannot continue to use literature lessons to improve the teaching and learning of the English language, morals and values.
Literature classes must teach students the art of telling compelling stories using a language of their choice.