The government policy of promoting science subjects over the arts is having effects on the labour market with some employers observing that majority of the current crop of graduates lack communication and critical thinking skills needed in the workplace.
This critical observation emerged at a public dialogue on the topic: “Is literature useless? Understanding opportunities and challenges for African writers” held last month at Fairway Hotel in Kampala.
The dialogue that was organised by the African Writers Trust attracted writers, journalists, academics, students, teachers of literature, policymakers, interested members of the public, and other stakeholders in the book sector.
The debate raised and addressed issues such as: how does literature contribute to national development? What are the opportunities – if any – for literature majors in the corporate job market? Why is literature important? What inspires students to study literature?
“Literature has a critical place in an organisation. Workers that have studied literature can help us tell stories of our organisations. They know how to communicate, present and are creative. And these are the skills an organisation is looking for when hiring its staff,” the human resource manager, Coca-Cola Beverages Africa (Uganda), Martha Munnu Omer, said.
“However, we are investing in the training of our workers in writing and communication skills, things that they should have studied earlier at the basic level. The fresh graduates are not up to scratch. So we need literature taught in schools because it reduces the cost of production. I can see the value and cost of teaching literature,” Munnu added.
Carry same weight
“I feel worried about this trend. We need both arts and sciences because they complement each other in our economy. Are our policymakers the right people? Why should they promote one side over the other?” Okey Ndibe, the Nigerian/American novelist and distinguished professor of creative writing in the US, argued.
There are only five government-aided schools in Uganda where literature is compulsory from Senior One to Four.
The former head teacher Gayaza High School, Victoria Kisarale, wondered how one can develop analytical skills without studying literature. “We need to soak our students into literature so that they do not look at the world from one lens but also be able to critic anything thrown at them. How can you handle 21st Century skills without critical literature skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, among others? Teachers of literature should be readers and they need to be retooled,” Kisarale said.
“Literature makes us human. As a child, while growing up our parents would tell us folktales with moral lessons before our pre-reading in school. Literature enables us to investigate the human existence with a moral humanistic vision. A man who is only fed on food alone without moral enlightenment is a dead man,” Prof Okey noted.
Bad for humanity
A visiting literature professor at Bishop Stuart University, Mbarara, Timothy Wangusa, hinted at the possibility of the extinction of humankind without the written word. “Without words and creativity, man risks extinction. The world would be silent without words. I believe the invention of language by the ancient man remains the most revolutionary of all.”
To Doreen Byengoma, the Hima Cement company secretary, “Literature is an amazing subject where you can escape to a magical world. It takes you places, learn the food and the memories you keep after reading books.”
And to Prof Okey we have not invested enough as Africans in the infrastructure that supports a strong reading culture.
“We do not have the skilled personnel in the book industry. People have a transactional approach to reading where students only want to pass an exam and get employed. Once you start identifying the moral value of a book then you get enlightened. We need to increase our reading culture dramatically. For instance, I give out books as gifts to my friends,” he said.
Parents, an online portal, reveals that literacy does not start only when your child starts school. “From birth, babies and children are gathering skills they will use in reading. The years between ages three and five are critical to reading growth, and some five-year-olds are already in kindergarten.”
According to the website, the best way to instill a love for and interest in reading is to simply read to your child. And yet, many parents do not. “Reading gives you the opportunity for close bonding with your child, and it also provides a window into a world of literacy that your child is about to enter.”
Similarly, Byengoma says reading needs to be encouraged even before our children start going to school.
“We can begin with storytelling. Unfortunately, our education system is about cram work to join the best schools yet we need critical thinking in schools,” she said.
And if we need to be transformed, Prof Wangusa affirms that we must read. “When you read you put on the shoes of the various characters in the books and acquire a special kind of wisdom. Wisdom that enables you not to hate other human beings,” he noted.
“We should all be readers. Literature should be pleasurable to read, interesting and seductive,” Prof Okey said.
What Experts Say
“We can begin with storytelling. Unfortunately, our education system is about cram work to join the best schools yet we need critical thinking in schools.”
Doreen Byengoma, Hima Cement company secretary
“Once you start identifying the moral value of a book then you get enlightened. We need to improve our reading culture dramatically. For instance, I give out books as gifts to my friends.”
Prof Okey Ndibe, Professor of creative writing in the US
“How can you handle 21st Century skills without critical literature skills such as critical thinking? Teachers of literature should be readers and they need to be retooled.”
Victoria Kisarale, former head teacher Gayaza High School