The Case for English “B”

(By Dr Joyce Jonas)

It’s time to take stock. At least, in the area of our children’s education. Those of us looking on from the vantage point of grey hair and experience are horrified at what we see: the intensely competitive spirit that has taken over in education robs our children of most, if not all, of the joy of learning.

Do we really think we are doing the right thing when we send tiny tots to “lessons”? Or when we haul our ten-year-old out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to study for the dreaded Secondary Schools Entrance Examination? Or when we agree for our fifteen-year-olds to carry anything from 10 to 20 subjects for their Caribbean Secondary Education Examinations? Haven’t we allowed things to get out of hand?

As one who has taught at both secondary and tertiary level for almost four decades, this writer can attest to the fact that far too many of our bright young minds are being numbed by the tediously repetitive schedule of learning.

I’ve seen the glazed look come over their faces as we settle down to the lesson in hand, as if experience has taught them that it’s going to be deadly boring, but you just have to endure it for the sake of getting that piece of paper in your hand that, allegedly, will be your passport to a good job. But they’re not fools; they know there will very likely be no good job at the end of it all—unless, of course, Daddy has his own business, or Uncle is Someone Who Knows Someone.

Learning should be a delight, not a chore. Watch any tiny tot “discovering” butterflies and lizards, or reaching out podgy hands to experiment with some new tactile experience! We human beings are naturally inquisitive about the world around us—and since it’s such an amazing world, learning about it can and should be a thrilling journey of discovery. Since for most of our children this is not the case, I say it’s time to take stock.

Regardless of curriculum changes, the time-honoured goals of education remain unchanged: first, to prepare children to be gainfully employed and to make a useful contribution to society, and secondly, to enable children to maximize their potential and become fulfilled as individual human beings.

I would like here to make a case for the study of Literature, arguing essentially that “English B” meets both these requirements—and better than any other subject on the curriculum.

The Caribbean Examinations Council has, in its wisdom, made English a double award: Language and Literature. Literature, they felt, was so important that it needed to occupy more than just a small corner of the English programme; it needed to be a subject in its own right.

Despite this strong signal being sent from regional educators, we hardly value Literature here in Guyana. Many of our students “drop” English B when they reach Fourth Form (and sadly, some are not even taught it even in lower school). They, and their parents, seem to have the notion that whereas subjects like Maths and Integrated Science and Principles of Business are “useful”, Literature is not. But this thinking is fundamentally unsound.

The discipline of studying Literature does, in fact, give the youngster practical skills, but is, in addition, superbly suited to helping the student wrestle with ethical, psychological and philosophical questions.

Literature is “useful” as a background for any number of careers. The child who reads literature learns to study human behaviour in the novel or play, and so is being prepared to deal with people sensitively and diplomatically in the real world. What better training could you want for a doctor or personnel officer, for an office manager or teacher? The child who reads literature comes to understand the dynamics of a storyline, of the bias of point of view, of the power of emotive language. What better training could you want for a lawyer or law enforcement officer, a social entrepreneur, or a school principal?

The child who reads literature—Third World literature especially—confronts, in the safe space of fiction—conflicts of race, religion and class, and learns to walk for a while in the other guy’s shoes, growing in empathy and understanding for his fellows. In a society that is daily becoming more multi-cultural, aren’t those skills – empathy, sensitivity, diplomacy, shrewd judgment – required attributes for many careers?

Studying literature can develop skills of logic, comprehension and clear expression; it can awaken an awareness of moral issues and an admiration for the nobler human qualities. Literature, in the hands of a good teacher, can make our young people more sensitive, more imaginative, more empathetic, more ready to hear another’s point of view. But more than this: in leisure moments, familiarity with literature will offer access to a world of imagination, mental stimulation and wonder that cannot be rivalled by any of the latest movies or hi-tech gaming.

How, one wonders, will the next generation of creative writers emerge to challenge and delight us, unless we give our youths the skills to appreciate creative writing that is worthy of emulation?

Our teenagers live in a world that is far more challenging than the world their grandparents grew up in. Their awakening sexuality is daunted by the spectre of AIDS. Everywhere they are bombarded with consumerist messages that they should “live for now”, and that they “deserve” whatever product is on offer.

Technology puts unheard of power at their fingertips in the virtual world, but in reality they languish in a state of powerlessness. Daily they hear news reports of ubiquitous atrocities and conflicts, and the Leaders and Authorities they are told to respect are, too often, discovered to be corrupt. Indeed, the very planet they are living on appears doomed to destruction. Literature cannot make these problems go away. But being able to lose yourself in a good book is wonderfully healing and strengthening.

Students will soon be selecting the subjects they hope to concentrate on in the final two years at secondary school. These young minds are at a crossroads—and so are we. Should we continue to send the message that education is all about accumulating A’s in allegedly “practical”, “useful” subjects, or do we remind ourselves that education is about developing the whole person?

Let’s stop the madness. This year, when the kids are selecting their CSEC subjects, let’s limit them to a maximum of ten. Let’s nudge them in the direction of English B – and let’s demand good teaching of the subject too!




  1. Sharon Babb

    Hi …I would like to get in contact with Dr. Jonas regarding the study guide that she wrote for The Lion and the Jewel.

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