SINGAPORE: The relative unpopularity of Literature as a GCE O-Level subject is a narrative that some people in Singapore’s arts and education community want to change.
Since 2006, an average of around 16 to 17 per cent of students each year have taken the Literature O-Level examination, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Education. That is a decline from the 21.8 per cent who took the subject in 2001 and the 47.9 per cent in 1992, according to a paper published by the Institute of Policy Studies.
This is a cause for concern for Dr Suzanne Choo, Assistant Professor of the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), who worries that a majority of students are not being sufficiently equipped to read literature critically.
She believes the current situation should be looked at because a lack of investment in literature education could lead to a society lacking in critical readers.
“We need to understand that literature education is not simply about reading literature. Literature education is fundamentally about criticism – it trains students to read closely, to read deeply and to read critically. These are vital skills,” she said.
Associate Professor Angelia Poon, Head of English Language and Literature Academic Group at NIE, shares the concern that a lack of exposure to literature could mean students do not develop some critical skills.
“Literary texts dramatise a wide range of human, political, social and cultural issues that are germane to students who have to negotiate the complexities of a globalised world. They challenge students to consider different perspectives and the literature classroom provides a space for informed discussion, critical debate and close reading that one is hard pressed to find elsewhere,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
Ms Sofia Bening, who took home the Keats-Shelley Young Romantics Prize for her essay titled The Stuff That Romantic Dreams Are Made Of in April, believes that the subject inculcates skills that go beyond school years.
“Literature is important because I think it really changes our perspective. It changes how we think and how we feel. Everyone has that one book that they have read that really changed something in them – literature has the power to do that,” she said.
“WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?”
However, while proponents of literature teaching see clear benefits in studying the subject, that perspective is not being reflected in student demand.
“(Students) perceive reading literature as an opportunity cost. Rather than spending time unravelling the marvels of the literary text, they jump straight into studying core subjects like mathematics and science,” said a full-time home tutor who declined to be named.
Ms Audrey Thin, who currently teaches English to nursery to lower primary children at a private enrichment centre, noted that a lacklustre attitude towards the subject could be attributed to the academic focus of both parents and students.
“I think both students and parents in Singapore are very practical. Before they do any extra piece of work, they tend to ask: ‘What's in it for me? What am I to gain out of this?’ So naturally, they would not want to take up literature out of practicality. I have ex-students grumbling: ‘We already took English, and shouldn’t that be enough? Why do we need to take up Literature?’”
Such practicalities were a concern for Ms Melissa Lim, who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Biomedical Science in 2013. She said she considered taking English Literature as a minor at university but ended up dropping it.
"I simply couldn't score well and it was affecting my CAP. I had to stop before my CAP was ruined," she said, referring to the university's Cumulative Average Point system used to track students' academic progress.
MAKING LITERATURE A BEST-SELLING SUBJECT
What, then, can be done to help revive a love for language and literature?
Mr Mokhtar Ismail, the father of Ms Bening, thinks a change in the approach to teaching the subject is needed.
“More important than the reading is the discussion, making the connections to real life and feelings and expressing oneself. This is where most schools drop the ball.”
Mr Mokhtar, who aimed to instill in his daughter a love of literature from an early age, added that secondary-age students should be encouraged to explore ideas, and bring their literature texts to life by “maybe acting out and writing about scenes of characters”.
“It’s too exam-oriented, the way it’s done now,” said Mr Mokhtar.
When asked about his approach to teaching his children, the father of two revealed that he read to his children before bedtime while they were growing up, and noticed his daughter had a way with words. He then encouraged her to take part in writing competitions from the time she entered Primary 3.
“The point of taking part in these writing competitions is not so much to win but to build confidence and self-awareness,” he said.
Ms Sofia Bening, winner of the Keats-Shelley Young Romantics Prize 2016, with Mr Richard Holmes, judge of the 2016 Keats-Shelley Prize. (Photo: Supplied)
However, there are still fundamental barriers to encouraging greater take-up of learning literature.
"For all the choices and different paths to success that students now have, literature and drama in Singapore - while it has grown - remains not quite on par with what is considered the more pragmatic subjects like Math, Chemistry or Economics."
LEARNING LITERATURE DELIVERS TRANSFERABLE SKILLS?
Highlighting how literature can develop skills that are usable in a range of careers could be one way to unlock its appeal for students, according to observers. And critical thinking skills are at the heart of that, according to a junior college literature teacher, who wished to remain anonymous.
“For example, a student of literature can apply critical thinking skills and discernment (or close reading skills) to the kind of information that they absorb in their everyday lives and social media. Or he/she can also develop other people and social skills such as empathy and understanding, being able to put one in another’s shoes. Moreover, more employees these days seek qualities such as having a critical mind in their potential employees,” she said.
Speaking at the annual pre-university seminar on May 30, 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted that jobs such as data scientists and software engineers will be in higher demand, compared to jobs like lawyers or accountants. In that same vein, US-based job portal CareerCast recently ranked Data Scientist as the best job of 2016 - based on salary and growth prospects - while new jobs such as Information Security Analyst debuted at number three on the list. Conversely, newspaper reporter came in last at 200th.
Data scientist Jason Widjaja is of the view that "the age of automation requires more creativity than ever".
Mr Widjaja told Channel NewsAsia that the key skills required for success are in jobs where machines cannot go, helping people learn to use machines better, and in making sense of the information that machines produce.
"In a super-automated future, the gift of the creative and intuitive mind resumes its rightful place," he said.
He also cited a McKinsey report stating that by 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions. "I see a tremendous rush to fill the 140,000-190,000 data scientist shortage," said Mr Widjaja, referring to the McKinsey report. "But the 1.5 million analytically minded managers are just as crucial to get value from data."
But until the narrative can be changed, with the appeal and usefulness of the subject being made clearer, studying literature may continue to be a closed book for a majority of students.