Who Cares About Literature?

 

First published in publichouse.sg in March 2012

Over dinner with some friends one evening, the subject of studying literature cropped up. People amusedly recalled their O level and A level texts, with a combination of delight and disdain. Then a lady at the table said, “I used to teach literature in a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school, even though I was not at qualified to do so.” That lady at the table has since left the teaching service to pursue a postgraduate degree.

 

“But,” she continued, “Singapore is so short of literature teachers that I was asked to do that job anyway. Well, that school is now dropping literature completely.” I was appalled, but I was not surprised.

 

Literature is not a popular subject amongst Singapore’s students. Our education system as everyone well knows places a huge emphasis on scores and grades, calculated in a very particular way, using MOE’s rationale and formulae. At the three major junctures of MOE education—PSLE, O Levels and A Levels—getting into the school or course of your choice depends very heavily on how you score in this system. It you don’t score, it doesn’t matter if you are the smartest person alive. You won’t make the cut.

 

Scoring high marks in literature is something our students find hard to do. “Literature is so subjective,” they cry. “A text can be interpreted in different ways. If the person grading your paper doesn’t agree with your interpretation, you could score badly.” Unlike in math or science subjects, where there is often a more concrete, quantifiable answer that cannot be argued with. Or even history or geography, which—at secondary and junior college level—is still quite straightforward.

 

But room for interpretation of literary texts, a quality that any form of artistic appreciation has, should not in itself make it hard to students to get good grades in. How our students here are generally taught comes to bear on this. Interpreting a text—or a painting or piece of music—requires a person to, besides knowing the devices and techniques being used in the work, form opinions and argue them convincingly. And it requires teachers to be open to a range of opinions and ideas, from ‘safe’ ones to radical ones, traditional ones to unconventional ones. These opinions and ideas have to of course make sense and be supported by the text in question, or several texts, if multiple texts are being looked at side by side, or a literary discourse. But, to borrow an apt phrase, the book is wide open. “The answers you get,” says award-winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, “depends on the questions you pose.”

opt for Music and Art Elective Programmes, and now also at the School of the Arts. MEP and AEP allow students to sit for O and A level exams in music and art respectively, and at SOTA students aim for an International Baccalaureate that includes these subjects.

 

It’s not a waste of time.

 

By keeping literature in the curriculum even for students who are not sitting for a major exam in it takes a lot of pressure off both students and teachers, while still imparting the precious qualities that literary studies has to offer. Students are freer to explore and think about texts and discourse without having to worry about how they are going to score, and literature teachers are at greater liberty to help students enjoy and fully appreciate the many fruits of literary studies for the same reason. Students who then choose to and get admitted to a literature elective programme will step up their study of the subject and be specially trained in it. This also raises the status of literature.

 

Maybe I’m biased, but I came from Singapore schools that strongly supported the study of literature and I benefited so much from it, that I wholeheartedly advocate it for all and sundry. There is really little philosophical argument against it, only a practical one. And isn’t education really about enriching the mind and developing the person, not just grades or eventually getting a job?

 

As Salman Rushdie, one of today’s greatest writers of contemporary fiction, and an extremely educated and erudite man, puts it, “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”

 

Perhaps we can look at a Literature Elective Programme. Similar to how the MEP and AEP work, literature would be kept as a discipline in the curriculum but only offered at O and A level to those who want to focus on it and have an aptitude for it. To a certain extent, this concept exists in the Combined Humanities O level exam, comprising a compulsory module in social studies and electives in history, geography or literature. I’m saying to take this a step further—allow literature to remain part of the curriculum, for at least secondary students, even for students who decide not to take a big exam in it. Just like how music and art are taught to primary and many secondary students who will never sit for future-defining exams in those subjects. 

 

Forming opinions is a skill that we don’t see nearly enough of in classrooms here. In fact, it is conspicuously absent. In the context of our current system, trying to teach or learn a subject where there are always multiple good answers and never a single right one, is a near impossible task for both student and teacher.

 

Ironically, the Ministry of Education’s approach to literature is actually sound. The Curriculum and Planning Division of MOE has spelled out very clearly its aims, principles and desired outcomes of the study of literature. In its document on the study of literature in secondary schools, for instance, it says that a key aim is to give students the opportunity to develop the ability to ‘enjoy the reading of literature and appreciate its contribution to aesthetic and imaginative growth;’ and ‘to explore areas of human concern, thus leading to a greater understanding of themselves and others.’ And that the teacher’s role is to help pupils develop ‘their own viewpoints and substantiate these with textual evidence,’ in a ‘positive classroom environment … in which literary texts are discussed with interest as well as enjoyed and valued.’

 

But then comes the paradox. Our education system’s surrounding grades-heavy framework holds literature captive in a cast iron grip and is incompatible with the way this fluid, interpretive subject needs to be taught. Incompatible, in fact, with its own curriculum. MOE in this respect is in a conundrum.

 

That has left literary studies in quite an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Literature is a second-class subject in many schools. It languishes, doesn’t get much attention or respect, and lacks expertise and teachers, leading to a situation where students or schools drop it, or people like my friend teaching literature although she wasn’t at all qualified to do so. And yet, it is a fundamental subject in the academic canon, and to scrap it completely is unthinkable.

 

Waxing lyrical about the benefits of studying literature doesn’t address the issue that Singapore schools face either. As long as grades remain what makes or breaks a student in our system, and as long as literature remains a tricky subject to score in, talking about how literature elevates the mind and soul is missing the point. So how do we position the study of literature in the current system—to reclaim its worth and teach it in the right way?

 

I though about this and finally came up with a possible solution. Which is to position the study of literature alongside that of art and music. While those latter two subjects are part of the curriculum (for primary and secondary schools), most students do not sit for exams in them at O and A levels (for PSLE for that matter). Those who want to pursue them seriously in secondary schools and junior colleges can