There has been much debate over the slow death of Literature in Singapore schools. 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.
While Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah attributed this to the greater choice of subjects available to students today, some were not convinced. Some blamed it on the obsession with school rankings and the introduction of combined humanities. It is often believed that students and principals alike have increasingly been shunning Literature due to its reputation as a difficult-to-score subject.
Nominated MP Janice Koh raised the question in Parliament 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.
Author and former teacher Alvin Pang, 41, told the Straits Times that the subject teaches critical thinking and written communication, which are essential skills particularly in today’s complex world. “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.”
Mr Pang was surely alluding to the way the Internet, while making a far greater amount of information available than before, has also made the quality and veracity of information more difficult to ascertain.
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, say the experts, the study of literature could mark the start of a lifelong appreciation for the arts which would in turn promote even greater creativity.
In the age of the Internet and globalisation – as economic competition heats up and other countries climb the value chain to challenge Singapore’s competitive advantages – creativity is likely to be key in enabling this tiny country with no natural resources to maintain its edge and its relevance.
It may be the supreme irony that Singaporeans’ single-minded focus on results may be propelling them towards poor results in the end. For it should be noted that results in exams do not equate to results in life.
For further reading, here is a brilliant article by Asst Professor Suzanne Choo of the NIE.
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