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Our English Literature Syllabus: Post-colonial? Or, a Colonial Post?

31 August 2020 06:11 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The current GCE A/L English Literature syllabus hints at a major mental health crisis facing the syllabus-designer. Enforced in the country’s 70th year as a modern day republic – and possibly in play for the next decade or so – this syllabus (taking a cue from its immediate predecessor, but taking it further) has an abysmally negligent space for Sri Lankan literature. In a syllabus that draws on 24 poems, 5 short stories, 4 novels, and 4 plays, there are four Sri Lankan names in all: those of Chitra Fernando (a short story), Patrick Fernando, Richard de Zoysa, and Vivimarie Vanderpoorten (a poem each). In the Drama and Fiction sections there is no Sri Lankan content. In 72 years of independence, we certainly seem to be going in the right direction.   

Of the quartet, the two Fernandos - Patrick Fernando’s “A Fisherman Mourned by His Wife” (1997-2010) and Chitra Fernando’s “Action and Reaction” (2011-2018) – have got ‘appointment extensions’ from previous curriculum cycles. Richard de Zoysa’s “Animal Crackers” is a perceptive poem. So is Vanderpoorten’s “Explosion”. But, has the syllabus-designer really lost imagination? In the late-1990s and for the better part of the 2000s, the English Literature syllabus had eight poems of Sri Lankan authorship (1/3 of the poetry anthology), an intelligent short story by Gunadasa Amarasekara (“Disonchinahamy”), a play and a novel each – in that order, Ernest McIntyre’s “The Education of Miss Asia” and Punyakanti Wijenaike’s“The Waiting Earth” – of Sri Lankan authorship. The poets included were Anne Ranasinghe, Yasmine Gooneratne, Jean Arasanayagam, Lakdas Wickramasinha and Patrick Fernando: a reasonable taste of Sri Lanka’s English poetry canon. With RK Narayan, Amrita Pritam, and Gabriel Okara, the syllabus had a progressive tinge of being consciously post-colonial. And yet, two decades later, we have surrendered that ground to favour some random men and women whose not being heard in the canon seems to be their first qualification.   

"In the past seven decades, literary genre itself has become so nuanced and complicated. Biography, autobiography, life writing, memory writing, journalism, film, crime writing, fantasy fiction, sci-fic, graphic narratives etc. have become central to literature classrooms"

I can hear the syllabus-designer’s woe: she cannot persist with a James Goonewardene or a Punyakanti Wijenaike. Their time, sadly, is up and some of their books are out of print. One couldn’t bring in Shyam Selvadurai, for our education policy is decidedly heterosexual. Carl Muller is too matter-of-fact. Nor could one bring in Elmo Jayewardena. The safer option, then, is to bank on someone like Nihal de Silva whose “The Road from Elephant Pass”, except for its sex scene on page 344, is acceptable in a discussion that demerits warfare. But, now the war is over, and suddenly, that discussion space is not a first priority. These are the challenges of a syllabus-designer.   


When I look back from my vantage point, in part, this is what saddens me about our syllabus-design: its inability to strike a balance between giving the student a taste, enriching her consciousness and outlook, and in encouraging her to enter the field. The Advance Level should be a “tester” in the cosmetics division. It needn’t necessarily be a chronological survey from Chaucer to Chinua Achebe (for that the university is there), nor a pedantic hang up between Shakespeare, Augustan rhetoric, and boring Victorian prose. For the English-speaking Sri Lankan subject who grows up with certain superior misconceptions of English literature and culture, a mid-teenage encounter with the A/L syllabus can be a cure. It can be the cue to make the literature and literary appreciation decisively sober. 
The 1997-2010 syllabus – though proven an exception – was the right way forward.   

"Their time, sadly, is up and some of their books are out of print. One couldn’t bring in Shyam Selvadurai, for our education policy is decidedly heterosexual. Carl Muller is too matter-of-fact"

Oddly enough, the literary gatekeepers of our country are unanimously agreed on the academic matter of decolonization; even though decolonizing academic matter has been suspended. In the second decade of the 21st century we are still using a syllabus design that can be dated back to the 1970s. The archaic genre-specific distribution easily outnumbers, in years, the syllabus-designer. Think of a small roadside boutique in a street corner that refuses to modernize in a fast expanding city; in which new titles in magazines and newspapers hang, and shampoo packets fashionable for the season come and go. I see no difference between this kiosk and the framework of our literature syllabus.   

"Oddly enough, the literary gatekeepers of our country are unanimously agreed on the academic matter of decolonization; even though decolonizing academic matter has been suspended"

In the past seven decades, literary genre itself has become so nuanced and complicated. Biography, autobiography, life writing, memory writing, journalism, film, crime writing, fantasy fiction, sci-fic, graphic narratives etc. have become central to literature classrooms. But, in our stunted school – and in spite of emerging conflict-related narratives from both the north and the south – there is not even a space for a meaningful reassessment of any of the conflicts we have been a part of, post-independence.   
Education is serious business. The content we enshrine in a national syllabus (and its shaping of a post-colonial writer and a reader) goes a long way in realizing our collective future. Perhaps, the syllabus-designer is tired: time takes its toll. But, as a famous sports minister once said, “disce aut discede”.

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