Literature classes can be a way to impart values

I read last Friday's commentary ("English literature in schools: Time to update the plot?") with great delight because that is how I learnt my values - through literature.

As a subject, literature opens up myriad worlds of human experience, from the deeply painful to the aesthetically pleasurable.

Books chosen for the national examinations typically tackle issues of conflicts within society. Many of these are borne out of real-life experiences.

The takeaway for students should be more than just appreciation for the beauty of the language.

More importantly, good literature nurtures the soul and helps the reader imbibe the values of empathy and compassion for the plight of others.

I fully agree that literature is best taught through in-class discussion, making the ethos relevant to what is happening in our society.

A constructive discussion based on the literary text has a wonderful way of opening the windows of our souls to connect with the angst of our society.

The real world is not all black and white, nor is it always a casual stroll down the garden path of exotic roses.

A discussion conducted with sensitivity, tact, humility and graciousness will educate far beyond the superficial meaning of the texts.

I recall studying John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, which dealt with racism in America during the Great Depression.

Naysayers said it did not have any relevance to Singapore, but it became relevant when we asked: "What if it happened in our country?"

It quickly dawned on my classmates and me how salient racism and its consequences were to our multicultural Singapore.

We developed a newfound admiration for the peace and stability of our country, which we often take for granted.

It is, of course, too simplistic to think that a simple class discussion can birth a compassionate society of Singaporeans.

But since values are more caught than taught, a good discussion that allows students to step into the world of literature is much closer to observing and imbibing kindness in action than just listening to an analysis of literary techniques.

William Wan (Dr)
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Literature classes can be a way to impart values'. Print Edition | Subscribe