Thursday, April 24, 2008

On the necessity (or not) of the English Department

In the essay, "On the Abolition of the English Department," by Ngugi, Liyong, and Owuor-Anyumba, a case is made for the abolition of the English Department at the University of Nairobi. In place of an English Department, Ngugi et al. propose the establishment of a Department of African Literature and Languages, which would provide courses in oral literature, Swahili literature, Modern African literature, and a selected course in European literature.

Ngugi et al. make an compelling case for their argument. They write that the "primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement." In offering a number of different courses that reflect the African composition, the University of Nairobi would encourage an appreciation for the history of African literature and culture. Their essay convincingly argues for a curriculum not based on European literature, which has so often been the norm for literary studies, but instead, for a curriculum that focuses on their own history and culture.

After reading the essay, I wondered what this type of literary curriculum would look like for literature departments in the United States. The English department at Messiah undoubtedly focuses primarily on English literature, with a number of my courses teaching such British authors as Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy, Donne, etc. While the United States was colonized primarily by English settlers, it would be inaccurate to say that our culture is predominantly English-based. The United States prides itself on being a melting pot, a country where different cultures live together to form a unique, cohesive culture, and yet our literature departments don't reflect our own cultural composition.

During my sophomore year of college, I took an ethnic literature course in which I read books that reflected a number of different cultural backgrounds. While the course was a literature course, it was not a part of the English department curriculum. And while I am grateful for everything I've learned in my English classes, including the various English literature courses I've had to take, there definitely seems to be some sort of disconnect between writing and literature departments and the various cultures in the United States.

It's strange for me to say that even as an English major, I wouldn't be opposed to the abolition of the "English" department at Messiah College. To call a literature/writing department an English department is to put limits on what can be taught, or what can be understand to be of any worth in the literary canon. So while I am a great advocate for the study of literature and writing, I am also an advocate for the abolition of the "English" department.

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