On Literature education in Singapore

It is no secret that education in Singapore is Serious Business. I have written about citizenship education (see for example Unexpected Opportunities, Youth Citizenship: Balancing The Equation) and education in general (see for example The Pedagogical Fallacy, School Should Be Like This, I Dream) in previous posts . Lately, there have been questions raised about the fate of literature education in Singapore. I provide a link here to this website. It has the contents of a Straits Times article which report on an MP’s response to a question raised in parliament about the drastic drop in number of students studying literature in the last 10 years.

In her response, the MP suggests that because there is more choice now in subjects, there are fewer students choosing each individual subject. There have been some (unsurprisingly) very articulate letters written in support of literature education and in opposition to the idea that greater choice is all that lies at the root of declining numbers of literature students. Everything that we know about the instrumental approach towards education in Singapore (and indeed everywhere in the world now) forces us to reject such a simplistic argument. There are so many things that shape particular choices. These are some of the factors that I have encountered in my experiences as a student, a parent, a teacher and a researcher:

  1. Some fear that they lack the ability to do well in the subject. It is no secret, and certainly not an illusion, that the subject calls for a linguistic ability that many of our students simply do not have. This may be a chicken-and-egg situation. Downplaying literature may reduce language ability. Lower language ability makes literature less accessible. And so it goes on. I have marked so many secondary school compositions where the writers struggled to articulate their ideas. Students are asked to write narrative essays, but have less and less exposure to well-written narrative texts. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That literature scores have not in fact gone down over the years does not really help the cause of literature in Singapore. Instead, all it proves is that smaller class sizes are better for learning.
  2. Lacking the ability to do well may of course be tied to fears of low O level scores. But I think it is also tied to self-esteem and academic identity. We can argue all we want that once you are out in the working world, what you actually studied makes little difference. Your O level certificate just gets you a foot in the door. But while you are in school, it matters to you that you do well. Young people are resilient in some ways but fragile in others. They are sensitive to the stigma they feel when test papers are returned in class and their friends have done better than they have. These feelings accumulate over the years in school. This is something that needs to be addressed for reasons that go beyond literature.
  3. Literature is perceived as having little relevance to the ‘real’ world, and no amount of arguing that there are invisible ways in which the subject matters will change this mindset. I am increasingly starting to feel that the privileging of some textual modes over others, some themes over others, and some ways of teaching over others has implications for how relevant the subject can be in a context where the ability to deconstruct texts in multiple modes, and to be able to imagine alternatives to dominant narratives, has never been more vital for a citizen.

There are ways in which debates over the power of new media and its role in the development of political identity can provide useful perspectives to the dilemma of studying literature in a context where numbers and facts are valued more and perhaps seen as less threatening. Good literature doesn’t just make you empathise with other people. It makes you question your own realities. But we have to be taught how to see this, because good literature is social critique in code. It’s coded for a reason. And therein lies the value of the Great Literature Debate in Singapore.


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