It’s not the mandate of literature teachers to produce writers


For many people, departments of literature in universities exist to develop novelists, poets and playwrights, and literary critics. At some point, they were expected to be hotbeds of political dissenters — men and women who should be a waking nightmare to any incumbent government.

This assumption still informs most of the current criticism of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature. In the early 1990s, the department received a lot of criticism for the paucity of political dissent and radical politics at the university.

The critics have always contrasted the performance of the department in 1970s and early 1980s with the late 1980s and early 1990s. The department had in the earlier period been a hotbed of radical professors of literature and students — the era of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and a host of other lecturers.

It has, according to these critics, inexplicably become quiet of late. It is not even producing writers of fiction; it is not producing hotheads in politics either.

These two assumptions are wrong. If there is department or faculty with potential and/or capacity to cultivate students to raise controversial issues with any government, it is the Department/Faculty of Political Science.

This is because political science studies governments, public policies and political processes. It is actually the study of power in all its forms, as political scientist Harold Lasswell explained, “of determining who gets what, when they get it, and how they get it.”

It is from students of Government that we should expect men and women who will question the policy foundations of the government and give philosophical validation of the policy actions of government, not from those studying literature.


The radical students who rose against the government in the 1970s did so more because of the radical professors of literature at the department or they borrowed or were influenced by ideas they had distilled from their study of government and political economy.

In literature, students are invited to study written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit — poems, stories, plays, novels, and essays.

hey are also called upon to study the nature and character of literature. A good department of literature also exposes students to language use and stylistics.

Apart from reading, the students are called upon think about the issues raised in the literary works they are studying, discuss them, and write about them. They are also called upon to make judgment about certain actions by the characters or personages in the book.

At the heart of the actions and behaviour of the managers of the departments of literature is a desire to cultivate and impart in the students superior literacy and culture. They would like to see the students who have passed through them demonstrating unique ability to read, write, think about issues and have the technical capacity to understand human beings.

The insights that the study affords the students into the vast human arena of good and evil, love and hate, peace and violence should enable them develop empathetic traits.

A number of English literature graduates choose to undertake research, while many more use the communication and analytical skills they develop in a range of careers including advertising, acting, publishing, teaching, librarianship, public relations, journalism, the legal professions, management consultancy and finance.

Creative writing is but a by-product of the influence of departments of literature. Some great writers, in fact, never studied literature. Some did not even have the chance of having university education.

Creative writing or genius is not taught or made. It is inborn. Education, and not necessarily study of education, is not the sine qua non of great novelists, poets, and playwrights.

The question we should ask of departments of literature, and indeed, the whole university system is whether they are releasing back into society students that have the appropriate trained intelligence to manage the society in ways that are beneficial for future generations.

Anything short of this is borne of malice or ignorance.