A history teacher with a love for literature and the English language walked one day into one of Barbados’ older secondary schools and, without uttering a single word to his students, proceeded to the blackboard and wrote: Woman without her man is a dog.
The young boys immediately started to chuckle and pointed mockingly to the girls in their midst.
Without so much as a smile or an exhortation to the young men to cease their tumult, the history teacher placed two commas in the sentence and the boys immediately went quiet as the girls erupted in laughter: Woman, without her, man is a dog.
The teacher brought the class to order, instructed that neither of the genders was canine, but emphasized the importance of precise, sensible language. Read your literature, he said, it will improve your life in ways tangible and intangible.
Many years earlier, as Charles Dickens breathed life into his wonderful prose Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble is told that the law made the supposition that his wife was acting under his directions, to which, Bumble responds tersely: “The law is an ass.”
Of course, neither Mr Bumble nor Oliver Twist, nor Charles Dickens knew the MP for St Michael North Ronald Toppin. But had they listened to his presentation during the recent Estimates Of Revenue And Expenditure Debate and his strong message of the unimportance of teaching literature in our schools, they would almost certainly have decided on a poster boy for that often quoted quip.
It is almost grievous to make an attempt to underscore the relevance of literature, its importance to the preservation of ideals, the shaping and development of movements, the appreciation and practice of religion, culture and the arts. The linkages between literature and the development of societies are inexhaustible.
Democracies have expanded and been strengthened because of literary reference. The development and appreciation of feminism and the importance of women being treated as equals in society have mushroomed through much input from literary works.
Those who would have others strap explosives to their bodies and destroy others in the name of some god, and those who once perpetuated slavery have one major link –– denying their minions the opportunity of expanding their intellect through exposure to the living words of their own choice.
By absorbing the stories presented to us through English literature, we understand the development of contemporary Western culture. We can understand and plan strategies to combat through re-education those who would use religion, gender and race to subjugate their fellow human beings.
Former slave, abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass penned that as a child he was taught the alphabet by the wife of his owner, despite the law prohibiting the teaching of slaves. He then taught himself to read and was caught reading a newspaper, which was snatched from him by a Caucasian. The rationale was that reading and slavery were incompatible.
Douglass later related that he discovered an anthology called the Columbian Orator which contributed to his understanding and appreciation of slavery, freedom and human rights.
In Willa Cather’s My Ántonia the author not only brings the American west to life, but she highlights women as pioneers and makes a number of definitive statements on women’s rights. Mr Toppin might not believe this, or be even interested, but surely the life, progress, self-realization and actualization of at least one woman somewhere on the globe, has been positively influenced by exposure to the works of Cather, Sylvia Plath, Jamaica Kincaid, Maya Angelou, Zora Hurston or Ama Ata Aidoo.
What makes Mr Toppin’s parliamentary rant even more inane is that there is a connection between law and literature. Indeed, it is a field of study and teaching where law as literature, law in literature, and to a lesser extent, law by literature, have become important instruments in expanding the knowledge of law and the understanding of ethics as they relate to the legal profession.
We have no reason to believe that Mr Toppin was anything but sober when he belaboured the point during his forgettable presentation. And within that context we hope that those within earshot, especially impressionable school minds who might have stumbled on to his contribution, be not swayed into the idea that positive learning should be selective. All learning that enriches should be embraced.
In the literary piece of Baalam and the ass, it is written that Baalam was hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites as they were being led by Moses to Canaan, and he was warned not to by God. On his way to Canaan the ass experienced three visitations by an angel which led to Baalam’s trip being impeded and the ass being beaten.
Of course, the history of the tale is that the ass spoke.
Perhaps, the morale of that story could be that one should not beat up on something that serves an important purpose unless one is willing to deal with unnatural repercussions. We are certain that Mr Toppin has nothing in common with Baalam nor indeed with the sorcerer’s ass, but we would hope that in future he appreciates the influence which he has on impressionable minds and the need to put a full stop –– not a comma –– on deleterious notions to his people.