Why Study Literature? (15 March 2016)
This panel members comprised of Philip Holden, Loh Guan Liang, Tan Tarn How and Tan Chee Lay. The topic of discussion was ‘Why Study Literature?’ The hard truths are that there are less Singaporeans reading literature nowadays despite them believing that there are benefits associated it. Refer to this article on the StraitsTimes. The essential question to ask is ourselves is ‘Can literature even be taught and studied’? Does the Singapore education system support creative ways in teaching literature when there is heavy emphasis on grades? Can the two co-exist?
The current form of assessment in literature requires students to sit for exams and regurgitate facts. This might not be the way to get students interested in the subject. This is because studying for exams often requires memorizing and rote learning. Hence, students might be passive in their learning and not appreciate a sensitive reading of the text. The aim of a literature education is for students to be able to apply what they have learnt. This could be done via the introduction of creative writing in schools. Currently, the required readings in schools, like Shakespeare, might seem too advanced for certain segments of students. As a result, for those who do not have a strong English language proficiency, they might lose interest in literature altogether. This is certainly not ideal. Elements of English literature could be incorporated in the English language syllabus. In lower Secondary, literature should be taught in a fun way so as to pique student’s interest in literature. At this level, a portfolio-based assessment could be introduced. In upper Secondary, some form of examination is inevitable and students should be prepared for some level of rigour in assessment.
Literature is great because it teaches you that accuracy does not equate to the truth all the time. Reading is proven to improve grades in students. In addition, it is the great equalizer and a child from a not well-to-do family who reads widely might be able to break free from poverty via the knowledge attained from reading. In general, literature helps formulate better citizens and make them more tolerant and aware of conflicts that arise in the world. Literature opens your mind to different values, ideas and concepts out there. The beauty of reading fiction is that it enables one to live other people’s lives and see things from other people’s point of view. Asking why people like literature is akin to asking why do people sing, write, dance etc? Such a question is essentially asking something more fundamental: why is there is need for arts? Why are the art important? Singaporeans are known to lead materially comfortable lives but have not attained the level of human flourishing in order first-world cities. Most of us lead mundane drone-like lives, living from day-to-day. Do visit Tarn How’s blog on human flourishing here. Basically, people who like literature are covet rebels. They value self-expression and protest against the certain conflicts that exist in the world. They believe in the value of individuality and do not like to be told what to do. Chinese literature used to be huge in the 1920s, 1930s. However, it has taken a back seat in recent years and you can hardly find a Singaporean Chinese writing in the Chinese language. Despite this, the Writers’ association/Singapore Writers’ association are doing good work. Some of the community centres have also worked hard to compile Chinese short stories/poems written by Singapore Chinese into books.
How do you improve the situation? It would certainly be beneficial for people who like English literature to attend Chinese literature-related events and expose themselves to different cultures. Literature should transcend languages and should be viewed as one. To address the lack of readers/writers, the government could do more in the areas of funding translations works from other languages to English and vice versa. Books in the libraries could be arranged by themes instead of by different languages (current practice). This novel approach might encourage more people to read books in other languages. Views towards works that contain smatterings of Singlish could be viewed more favourably in future. It might even be feasible to introduce such works as literature text for students. The bifurcation of the study of the English language with English literature is a trans-national issue and other countries also battle this problem.