Monday, 4 March 2013

Reigniting the spark of literature

Academics and literary figures give their take on why students should be exposed to the subject
By Jane Ng, The Sunday Times, 3 Mar 2013

Pasir Ris Crest Secondary bucked the trend in 2007 when then principal James Ong made Literature compulsory for all upper secondary students.

That was not all. Everyone at the neighbourhood school had to do Literature as a full O-level subject.

It caused an uproar among parents, who feared their children would not score top grades in the subject, and students, who swore they would fail.

But Dr Ong pressed ahead because he believed Literature was good for everyone. "Literature teaches lessons about human behaviour, values and how to relate to people. Education is about making people better, and this is part of education," said the educator, who has a science background.

He knew he was going against the tide, given declining numbers of students across Singapore taking Literature at the O levels. Schools and students preferred subjects with a better chance of scoring distinctions.

But he held a different view. "Education is not just about attaining good grades. The value that is inherent in the study of literature is more important than the grades you achieve."

His students went on to perform better than the national average in most years. Dr Ong has since moved on, and is now head of the education programme at SIM University.

Since last year, however, pure Literature has no longer been compulsory for Express stream students at Pasir Ris Crest Secondary. They can now choose to take it as a full subject or an elective - a "half subject" paired with Social Studies. The subject has been optional for Normal (Academic) students since 2009.

A school spokesman said the change was made as part of an annual school review at the end of 2011 to offer students more choices, especially for those interested in taking the three sciences.

In the last two decades, the number of students taking pure Literature at the O levels fell from 16,970 (47.9 per cent of the Secondary 4 cohort) in 1992 to 7,322 (21.8 per cent) in 2001, to a mere 3,000 (9 per cent) last year.

Educators say the decline coincided with the introduction of the ranking of schools in the early 1990s, based on results at the O levels, among other criteria.

Some schools soon began dropping Literature or discouraging students - especially those unlikely to score top grades - from taking the subject.

Then came Social Studies in 2001, when a humanities elective (the "half subject") was paired with Social Studies as a new combined humanities subject. More students chose History and Geography than Literature.

In Parliament last week, Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, said Literature's decline reflected the fact that students now have more choices of subjects to do.

With the introduction of combined humanities, she said, fewer students were doing not only pure Literature at the O levels, but also pure History and Geography.

The sharp decline of interest in literature has dismayed academics, writers and those in the arts scene.

Writing to The Straits Times Forum Page last Thursday, National Institute of Education academic Angelia Poon Mui Cheng was not convinced that the decline was the result of students having more choice.

School ranking and the introduction of combined humanities were to blame, she felt.

Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh, who had asked the parliamentary questions about the take-up rate of Literature, told The Sunday Times that she did so because educators and people in the creative sectors had told her that the quality of thought and argument, and the ability to communicate ideas among young people today had gone down.

A number of them felt it had to do with the fact that fewer students were doing Literature.

"It may mean generations of Singaporeans who may be literate in the language, but are unable to articulate well their views and feelings, closed to new ideas or uncomfortable with life's ambiguities," she said.

Poet and short-story writer Felix Cheong, 47, said a place has "a bit more soul in it" if its people read and appreciate books.

"As a 13- or 14-year-old, you may not realise the benefits of Literature. You may hate the subject, you may think you can't score in it compared with Maths and Science. But over time the effects will start filtering through. For example, you develop a sense of empathy towards people," he said.

Author and former teacher Alvin Pang, 41, who wrote When The Barbarians Arrive (2012) and What Gives Us Our Names (2011), said the subject teaches critical thinking and written communication, which are essential skills.

"The study of literature requires students to make sense of ambiguous data, multiple or even conflicting sources of information, and different points of view," he said.

"In a simpler past, these cognitive skills might have been less valued. In today's more complex world, these capabilities have become much more essential."

Skills aside, literature also helps students to be more creative, said Ms Tan Hwee Hwee, 38, author of the novels Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc.

"The Singapore Government is always telling us they would love Singaporeans to be more creative. Literature is valuable in helping students think more creatively," she said.

Above all, the experts said, the study of literature could mark the start of a lifelong appreciation for the arts.

Author Catherine Lim, 70, whose books are among those used as literature texts, said: "I think that the love for the arts - whether theatre, literature, dance, the entertainment arts, may be seen as a package, an inclusive thing. I have yet to come across a lover of theatre who isn't interested in literature, and vice versa."

If the trend in schools is anything to go by, those who count literature's numerous pluses may be talking to the wall. There remains a reluctance among schools to offer the subject, and they point to limited demand or the lack of teachers.

Shuqun Secondary School started offering Literature as an elective this year, after a hiatus.

Principal Chia Hai Siang, who is trained in literature and became principal two years ago, said a handful of students had expressed interest in the subject last year, but the school was unable to start a class as there were fewer than five students.

This year, with encouragement from the school, 14 students applied to take Literature, and the school started a class even though the number fell short of the average class size of 20.

"With two classes of Express students and four elective subjects to choose from, for instance, some schools are unable to reach the critical mass required to start a class," he said.

With only half of Singapore's schools with O-level courses offering Literature, some teachers trained in it never get to teach the subject. One of them, who wanted to be known only as Ms J. Tan, said students at her school had trouble coping with the English language, and the school felt Literature would be too hard for them.

"I love literature, but I have never had a chance to share my love for literature with my students," she said.

A check with schools offering Literature at the O levels found several common factors among them.

First, they have a principal who values the subject. Then, it helps to have a strong lower-secondary Literature programme to whet students' appetite, and passionate teachers who make the subject come alive.

Students at CHIJ St Joseph's Convent are exposed to a range of literature genres and unabridged text types ranging from film to plays, while in Secondary 1, students at Crescent Girls' School take Literature as part of a Communicative Arts Programme that integrates English and literature.

All girls at CHIJ Katong Convent take Literature - some as a core subject, others as an elective paired with Social Studies.

The school started a non-examinable subject, Literary Arts, in 2010 to let lower-secondary students write their own works - a short story in Secondary 1 and a collection of poems in Secondary 2. They then share their portfolios with the school through an exhibition.

It also has an annual Book and Music Week, with activities including choral speaking, class exhibitions and busking.

"Everyone in the school is a part of this event, which helps to emphasise the significance of literature," said Madam Sukhjeet Kaur, 34, head of literature and literary arts at the school.

Dunearn Secondary School has a vibrant literature culture too, and even students from the academically weaker Normal (Academic) stream are encouraged to take the subject at the O levels, as long as they are interested in it.

Secondary 5 student Charlene Ang, 16, said she had never read poems before she studied Literature, but she is now able to analyse them.

"I found it quite challenging at first, but it was interesting. Now I find that it helps to improve my English," she said.

She enjoys school trips to watch plays and assembly talks by Singapore authors. She looks forward to literature lessons even though they are conducted in the afternoon for students from different classes.

Secondary 4 student Tan Ying Shan, 16, said that after studying the play Boom, by playwright Jean Tay, she changed her perspective on her parents and is working on her attitude towards them.

"I learnt not to take anything for granted. Like the character in the book, my parents are also growing old," said Ying Shan, who decided to take Literature even though her parents told her it was "hard to score" in it.

Several Singapore writers who spoke to The Sunday Times said they are prepared to do their part to draw students closer to literature, by giving talks or conducting workshops.

But at least one said it would take a larger mindset change from society to reverse literature's decline.

Poet Cyril Wong, 36, who won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2006, said: "Our larger Singaporean culture has to change and evolve to include a love for less tangible things, such as modes of aesthetic appreciation and artistic expression."

View literature's decline in the right context

WHILE I understand the concerns over the decline in the number of students taking pure literature at the O levels ("Irony of literature's decline" by Dr Angelia Poon Mui Cheng, and "Is the subject worth saving?" by Dr Warren Mark Liew; both published on Thursday), this trend should be situated in the right context.

First, since the introduction of the Integrated Programme in 2004, the number of students skipping the O levels has increased. Thus, it is natural that fewer students are taking pure literature today.

Second, it is inaccurate for Dr Poon and Dr Liew to claim that more students are choosing geography and history over literature.

In its written reply to Nominated MP Janice Koh on Monday, the Education Ministry stated that there was a decrease in the number of students taking pure geography and pure history from 2001 to last year ("More subjects to choose from, so fewer take pure literature"; Tuesday).

In fact, the fall in the number of O-level geography candidates during this period was 79 per cent, while the corresponding decrease for literature was 57 per cent.

Moreover, literature was a more popular subject than history between 1992 and last year. For example, nearly 2,000 more students took literature than history last year.

Third, Dr Poon and Dr Liew assert that the ministry is neglecting literature.

This is not true if one considers the ministry's implementation of mother tongue literature as an elective component of the compulsory combined humanities subject from this year.

Fourth, it is unfair for Dr Poon and Dr Liew to suggest that literature is on the decline by looking at just the O-level statistics. They should also take into account the number of students taking A-level literature for a more informed conclusion.

Chan Cheng Lin
ST Forum, 2 Mar 2013

Irony of literature's decline

TUESDAY'S article ("More subjects to choose from, so fewer take pure literature") revealed the startling statistic that 3,000 students took pure literature last year, compared with 16,970 in 1992.

Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah said this decline "needs to be understood in the context of an education system responsive to a changing social context, and which has offered increasingly more curricular choices for students over time".

This is misleading.

The initial drastic drop in the candidature for literature occurred in 1992, when the practice of ranking schools based on academic results started.

The next significant dip occurred in 2001, when social studies was introduced as the compulsory "half" of the combined humanities subject.

Thus, over the last two decades, literature has been dying a slow death in secondary schools. It is these two main reasons, and not the more recent offering of subjects like "drama, physical education, computing and economics" to boost curricular choice, that have led to the decline in enrolment for literature.

Literature has suffered vis-a-vis history and geography when it comes to the selection of the elective for the other half of the combined humanities subject. A disproportionate number of students take the latter subjects rather than literature because they perceive geography and history to be factual, content-heavy subjects that are easy to attain good grades in.

The nature of the social studies syllabus also promotes the idea that geography and history are a better fit than literature as the complementing elective. Left to "choice", this is the kind of imbalance that results.

This is surely a distortion of the holistic and interest-driven education that we want for students here. It is a problem that the Education Ministry should seek to redress.

Ms Rajah has affirmed the ministry's stance to persuade schools to be less grade-conscious by not overly publicising results. This is a step in the right direction for the Primary School Leaving Examination.

Ironically, not publishing the distinction rates in the case of O-level humanities subjects has led to the perpetuation of erroneous ideas about the alleged difficulty of a subject like literature.

Literature thus has the dubious distinction of being the policy victim of both an over-emphasis on academic achievement and the move to de-emphasise grades.

Failure to discern the irony just proves my point that literature as a subject should be strongly encouraged, and not needlessly allowed to be collateral damage in the false name of greater curricular choice.

Angelia Poon Mui Cheng (Dr)
ST Forum, 28 Feb 2013

No literature? Sadly, a missed opportunity to teach values
By Suzanne Choo, The Sunday Times, 3 Mar 2013

Once the most central subject in schools in Britain and its colonies during the age of Empire, English literature has now lost its place of prominence. This phenomenon is apparent in the case of Singapore.

That it is not a new occurrence but evidence of a steep decline over the past two decades is obvious from figures released last month, showing a sharp fall in enrolment for O- and N-level literature since 1992.

In fact, one can trace literature's decline further back, to the period following Singapore's independence, when more emphasis was placed on the communicative aspect of English through policies such as bilingualism.

English was positioned as a first language, the language of business and a bridge language connecting different races, while the study of mother tongue languages was essential in ensuring citizens would remain rooted to "Asian" values and traditions.

Effectively, this contributed to a gulf between the study of English language and English literature so that the former was a key national priority, while the latter was marginalised since its problematic ties to colonialism meant that English was not to be the avenue through which culture and values would be transmitted.

What the state astutely recognised then was English literature's inherent connection to values education.

Indeed, when English literature was first constructed as a school subject and introduced to Britain's national system of education during the late 18th century, it was primarily a platform for the cultivation of bourgeoisie English values.

One way in which the Ministry of Education in Singapore sought to distance the subject from its colonial roots was by renaming it literature in English so as to include a broader range of literary works from Singapore and other parts of the world.

To fully address literature's decline, however, there is a need to return to its foundational role as a platform for critical values education in the 21st century.

In contrast to values education that is didactic, involving the transmission of values in a top-down and fact-based manner, literature education equips students to negotiate the multiplicity of values and belief systems of diverse cultures.

In my studies of literature classrooms in Australia, Singapore and the United States, I have observed, for example, how a teacher "interrupted" his students' reading of William Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew by getting them to compare and contrast the taming of women in other societies through stories and plays by Jamaica Kincaid, Kyoko Mori, Maxine Hong Kingston and Stella Kon. Through this, students gained insights into the oppression of women across cultures.

In another class, the teacher had students read Shaun Tan's graphic novel, The Arrival, centred on the experience of immigration, followed by various short stories on human rights. After that, students conducted research and simulated a forum in which they discussed various social issues from the perspective of the state, the citizen and different marginalised groups.

In both these cases, students engaged with a form of values education that was not about the acquisition of a set of normative principles, but rather the cultivation of dispositions including the ability to examine issues from multiple perspectives, to appreciate ambiguity, and to make informed evaluations of values and their consequences.

While literature education does foster aesthetic appreciation and a taste for good writing, what we often forget is that when students are asked to respond to questions such as "What makes us sympathise with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart", "Is justice served at the end of Macbeth", or "How does the writer develop the sense of irony in the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est", they need to consider the underlying beliefs determining a character's intentions and behaviour, thus affecting our feelings towards him or her, the different social-cultural values influencing how concepts such as justice are perceived, and the ways in which literary techniques contribute to the implied author's philosophical proposition in the text.

In short, these are questions requiring critical engagements with values.

The reality of cultural clashes and mixings as a result of our globally interconnected world has meant that it is now difficult to sustain any singular, universal value system.

Through exposure to literary texts from around the world, students gain access to the consciousness and lived realities of other communities; they apply critical reflection and ethical reasoning as they navigate various cultural and moral ambiguities conveyed vividly through the struggles of various characters in texts and, in the process of experiencing other worlds, they develop an imagination hospitable towards the powerless and the foreign.

Far from being an impractical subject, literature education has become even more vital in our porous, networked societies today.

In her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum observes that economically advanced nations tend to invest their systems of education in equipping students with useful and highly applied skills suited to economic development.

"If this trend continues," she says, "nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements."

There is a need for policymakers and educators to restore the centrality of literature education in Singapore, but this can occur only when the significant role literature education can play in promoting critical values education is first recognised.

The writer is an assistant professor with the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests are in the history of literature education, as well as literature education for global and cosmopolitan citizenship.

Studying subject doesn't make one a better person - but that's fine

Ms Jane Ng's article ("Reigniting the spark of literature"; last Sunday) raised many justifications from academics and literary figures on why more students should be pursuing literature as a subject.

I am hesitant in accepting these justifications at face value as there is an implicit assumption that studying literature automatically makes one a better person. It doesn't.

Studying literature does not make a person more morally upright or open-minded. If this were true, as Florida International University professor Stanley Fish points out in his article, "Will the humanities save us?", "the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature... departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts... (but) it just isn't so. Teachers and students of literature... don't learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyse literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge".

There are many open-minded and critical students whose lives have improved upon taking literature, but there are also close-minded students whose way of life and thinking remain unimpacted even after taking literature. And that should be the case.

It is not the nature of literature as an academic discipline to shape minds or to create paradigm shifts; it allows you to change your life and your mindset as much as you want it to. The onus is not on literature as an academic discipline to "improve" students.

This raises the question: Of what use is literature then, as a subject?

As Prof Fish would reply: "The only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honour to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good."

Taking literature is its own good and it does not need any other justification to exist.

Therefore, just read.

Bay Ming Ching
ST Forum, 10 Mar 2013

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