Panel Discussion: What are the Boundaries?

This panel discussion was held on 14 April 2016 and featured the following speakers: Loh Chin Ee, Suzanne Choo and Zhou Decheng.

Some of the important questions to ask are the following: Should literature even be taught? Which approach should be adopted? What kind of materials should be covered? The discussion is focused on literature that is taught in the secondary school curriculum. From surveys, over 25% of Singapore’s have heard of local authors like Catherine Lim, Russell Lee, Low Kay Hwa etc. There is a category of works known as canonical works. Should they be introduced? They are essentially a series of books chosen by a select group of people that reflects popular local culture. Should students be made to study such books? Should you choose a popular work or less popular works that reflect societal values? There are 3 possible approaches that be adopted. The first is the heritage view. This is a view that works chosen should reflect the national identity and should have cultural value. This is in line with social studies. However, should controversial books like those on race/religion be chosen as well? The next approach is the multi-perspective one. This is where important issues are raised. These include issues like ‘home/belonging’, ‘cost of living’, ‘family’ etc. Books chosen based on this approach should contain issues where students can relate to. The last approach is the world-lit view where both local and world literature should be studied. By world literature, it does not only include UK and US publications. This approach allows the student to develop a global perspective on issues. Ultimately, there are many questions that still need to be answered. Such as, who selects the books? Should some works be made compulsory or do teachers have some freedom to decide? Should more shorter works be selected, or just one or two long works?

The next area of discussion was on cosmopolitanizing literature education. Arts for arts sake? Oscar Wilde once commented that ‘All art is quite useless.’ In secondary schools, there are many questions in exams that are focused on style. This is closely related to aestheticism. However, this is a dangerous trend and could be the trend of why the number of students studying literature is declining. Formalism is the study of the text alone, without taking account author’s background or the students’ emotion. There is basically nothing beyond the reading of the text. This is the idolatry of the text. Is there no social value in the works? Does the text really no meaning beyond the words used? Is literature really useless? In Singapore, there is a heavy emphasis on American and British works. Instead of formalism, we could introduce cosmopolitan ethical criticism. This encourages students to think about ethical issues, morals and philosophy. This makes them better able to empathize with others and makes them better citizens of the world. Greek ethics is useful and can certainly improve students’ lives. Text could be chosen based on their underlying ethical issues and concepts. Literature could be a good way to introduce simple ethical concepts to students. Some of the text covered in the secondary school syllabus include ‘George Bernard Shaw – Pygamalion’; ‘Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman’; ‘Mildred Taylor – The Road to Memphis’; ‘Where Angels Fail to Tread – EM Forster’. The books are heavily Western centric. Is there room for more controversial text?

The last discussion was on Chinese literature in Singapore and why we need a paradigm shift in thinking to improve it. The current syllabus covers about 50% classical works and 50% modern works. There is much emphasis on Chinese poetry. The syllabus is also classified according to genre. Both translated works and analysis are tested. Li Bai’s war poems are included as well. In addition to poetry, there is also fiction works like short stories and flash fiction that are covered. Martial arts novels are included too. Even sensitive areas like Gender issues could be themes covered in books.

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