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Did You Know Paul McKechnie taught Classics at the University of Malawi?

By Laura Irving

Have you ever thought about how Classics might be taught differently in other countries? Through interviewing Paul McKechnie, we have discovered that the experience of teaching Classics in Malawi is different to Australia. It is a valued discipline thanks to the patronage of President Banda.

The Department of Classics at the University of Malawi

Malawi is a land-locked country in Africa bordering Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. It is a developing country with an economy dependent on agriculture.

Formerly a British colony, Malawi achieved independence in 1964 under the leadership of President H. Kamuzu Banda. The success of the independence movement led to a surge in national pride, and the first universities were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Seen as a tool for national development, the University of Malawi therefore had symbolic value and it grew over the decades under the academic administration of President Banda.

The Classics Department did not appear until the 1980s despite President Banda’s vigorous advocacy of the study of Classics. He believed it was impossible to study the minds of their British conquerors without a knowledge of the psychological and cultural heritage of the West. Tensions arose when the rest of Malawi’s government did not agree, as some did not find the studying of Classics (mostly Ancient Greece and Rome) useful in an African country.

President Banda’s wishes prevailed. His pet project, Kamuzu Academy, always had a tradition of teaching Classics, and the University of Malawi finally followed suit in the 1980s. 1982 saw Classics first taught in the University by Caroline Alexander, though it was a part of the Department of Philosophy. The Department of Classics was subsequently set up in 1985.

The University of Malawi offers many classes in its Department of Classics

Associate Professor Paul McKechnie at the University of Malawi

Before Paul McKechnie worked at Macquarie University in the Department of Ancient History, he taught in the Classics Department at the University of Malawi not long after its inception.

Paul McKechnie was a high school teacher and external examiner in the United Kingdom when he saw an advertisement for a teaching position for the Department of Classics at the University of Malawi in a newspaper in 1987. As rent was paid, it seemed like a pretty good deal! He replaced Jack Dawson as Head of Department and taught Latin and Ancient Greek, remaining at the University until 1991.

In Malawi, students learn English in primary school and instruction is given in English in secondary school, so Paul was able to teach in his native language. It does seem that there was perhaps a bit of a language barrier, as Paul had to set his students a punctuation exercise in a Beginners’ Roman History class. (He does, however, wish he could do the same thing for a number of his Australian students!)

Paul returned to the University of Malawi for brief periods in 2004 and 2018. The University buildings are very much of the 1960s and 1970s style, and are now a bit neglected due to lack of funding. To put it into perspective, the whole university receives only a fraction of the financial support that the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University receives!

Since 2004, the computer facilities have greatly improved. Paul says there used to be a cramped computer room with a long queue, and in 2018 he observed that about 30-40% of students have their own laptops, there are computers in the library, and Google Classroom is used. It would seem that Wi-Fi is still not very widespread, as he has found that students would bring in a USB in order to download PowerPoint slides from his lectures. This is very different from Macquarie’s iLearn technology where resources can be downloaded from home in seconds!

Banda’s wish for a Classics Department at the University of Malawi has proved successful. Paul’s Classics students at Malawi have gone on to Postgraduate study and have had colourful careers. Some students received funding for overseas study and now work abroad. He keeps in touch with these students over social media.

Paul is currently co-editing a book with Steve Nyamilandu about the teaching of Classics at the University of Malawi. It will include memoirs about what it is like to be a student and a teacher in Malawi in the 2010s. The title will be A Monument More Lasting than Bronze.

As privileged Ancient History students in Australia, it has been interesting for us to observe how and why Classics has been taught in different countries who have limited access to resources. It is fascinating to see different perspectives on why Classics is relevant to the modern world.

Acknowledgements

We would like to sincerely thank Associate Professor Paul McKechnie for his contributions. It has been fascinating and eye-opening to listen to your experiences in Malawi and we are grateful for your time.

Thank you also to Danielle Saade, Luke Peloquin and Professor Ray Laurence

Further Reading

Bibliography

Jenner, E. “A Short History of the Department of Classics, Chancellor College, University of Malawi” Studies in Classical Antiquity, 10.1 (2001) 161-169

Usher, M. “A Piggyback and Personal Account of Classics at Malawi” CHS Research Bulletin, (2011) http://www.chs-fellows.org/2011/02/04/a-piggyback-and-personal-account-of-classics-in-malawi-2/ accessed 30/03/2020


Laura Irving

Laura Irving is an Ancient History student at Macquarie University. She is interested in the Roman Empire, with a focus on power and politics and the roles of women. Laura is contributing to this blog for an internship as part of her PACE unit under the supervision of Professor Ray Laurence