Ngugi Wa Thiong’o et al

Assigned: Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi, Taban Lo Liyong, and Henry Owuor-Anyumba. “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1912-16). Also read the editors’ introduction (1909-11).

“On the Abolition of the English Department” (1968)

1. On 1912-16 (“1. This is a comment on the paper presented…”), Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, and Henry Owuor-Anyumba argue straightforwardly that the English Department of the University of Nairobi, Kenya should be abolished. What statements in the essay best elucidate what the authors believe is wrong with the status quo at the university, i.e., with the way the English Department is educating its students and indeed with its very existence as a remnant of colonial power?

2. On 1913-16 (“6. Here, then, is our main question…”), Ngugi, Liyong and Owuor-Anyumba don’t simply discuss what’s wrong with the status quo; they set forth their own positive vision of what the university ought to be doing by way of literary and cultural education. What remarks in the essay best explain Ngugi, Liyong and Owuor-Anyumba’s conception of an institution of higher learning’s mission? That is, how do they articulate their university’s responsibilities towards its students, and, much more broadly, towards the people of Kenya and even the continent of Africa?

3. On 1913-14 (“8. … In suggesting this name, we are not…”), Ngugi and his fellow academics at the University of Nairobi suggest bluntly that the English Department be replaced by a Department of African Literature and Languages, but they are by no means heaping scorn on European literature. So what role do they suggest British literature, Russian novels, French poetry, African-American literature, Asian literatures, and the like ought to play in the new educational framework they promote? Moreover, what alteration do they suggest in the relative balance between the British texts and the continental European texts to be taught?

4. On 1914 (“12. The Oral Tradition…”), Ngugi, Liyong and Owuor-Anyumba place a great deal of emphasis on the centrality of the oral tradition in Kenyan and indeed African literature more broadly. What new approach to the humanities would be encouraged by stressing such a tradition alongside so-called standard literary works from African and other cultures?

5. General question: In “On the Abolition of the English Department,” Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, and Henry Owuor-Anyumba wrote as they did in the 1960s context of an African continent just emerging from European colonial domination. Clearly, they saw “self-understanding” as part of the value in literary and cultural study. Here in the United States, to what extent might students and professors inflect or adapt these authors’ anti-colonial framework to suit American higher education? Do you think the English department’s curriculum at your own school adequately reflects and explores the complex historical, literary and cultural experience of the United States? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake