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English literature in schools: Time to update the plot?

Adolescents today are closely connected to a world of violence, suffering and ethical choices. Social media brings them images of migrant ships capsizing in the Mediterranean, crashed airplanes, suicide bombings and environmental disasters. Commentary on posts often amplifies such conflict.

Yet literature classrooms in Singapore schools seem strangely insulated from this world. A survey of prose texts included in this year's GCE O level Literature in English examination reveals that only one of seven books on the list was published after 1990. Some are far older: E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905); Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country (1948), and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

These texts feature conflicts, but they are remote from those of the contemporary world.

Furthermore, when teachers introduce contemporary texts that illustrate conflict, they face objections from school leaders and parents alarmed at depictions of violence in these texts.

Last year, for example, parents expressed discomfort with fight scenes in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games ("Many support SCGS decision to use Hunger Games as text but some question violence levels", The Straits Times, Feb 22, 2015), while others objected to the inclusion of Roger McGough's satirical poem The Lesson in a literature examination because it apparently condoned violence ("Violent poem used in school gets parents worked up", The New Paper, May 25, 2015).

Such nervousness about depictions of violence extends to the way texts are chosen. Those who have tried to recommend newer texts in the curriculum have often found them excluded because they contain violence or touch on potentially controversial issues such as religious belief, sexuality, or social inequality.

Such an attitude misunderstands the nature of literature. Literary texts do not provide moral instruction and direct argument, as expository texts do. This is their strength. In contemporary Singapore, we see conflicts expressed in expository texts in newspapers, blogs, television documentaries and in social media.

Rational argument is important, but it is often unpersuasive. Protagonists involved tend to stake out their positions, and then defend them. Once committed to a position, they rarely change their minds, and indeed prolonged argument tends to entrench them into opposite camps with no knowledge of, or sympathy for, each other.

Literature, in contrast, allows an exploration of contentious issues through empathy. Literary techniques encourage students to make connections between their world and the new worlds they encounter in the text.

A metaphor, at its most basic, is a literary device that connects self and other, known and the unknown. The encounter with a literary text does not teach a reader one single thing; different readers may take away different knowledge from the text, and some of this self-knowledge may - and indeed, should be - disturbing and unsettling.

There is a need to recognise then that depictions of explicit and implicit violence in literature is precisely what can sensitise students to the effects of conflict and enable them to inhabit the perspectives of those who suffer. In this light, schools and teachers should more intentionally provide opportunities for students to explore the violent and contradictory nature of the real world through literary texts.

For example, John Boyne's holocaust novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is one of the more popular texts taught at the lower secondary level. However, teachers rarely push students to explore how the novel's depictions of the horrors of the Jewish holocaust connect with present-day examples of genocide or persecution of ethnic and other groups in Syria, Rwanda and other countries. Students thus miss the opportunity to grow through their encounter with literary texts, and to make terrorism, the challenges of immigration, discrimination of gender and of ethnic groups, central to literary discussions.

THREE SUGGESTED REFORMS

To move to a pedagogy that truly brings out the possibilities that literary texts offer, we suggest three reforms. First, the Literature curriculum should be anchored in ethical questions rather than the five areas of study - plot, character, setting and atmosphere, style and theme - currently stipulated in the national syllabus. The current emphasis on aesthetic appreciation disregards literature's potential to invite ethical explorations about value systems, political justice, or the nature of being human.

Second, it should include contemporary texts that deal with global injustices. One example is Patricia McCormick's Sold, which centres on a 13-year-old Nepalese girl who is sold by her uncle and trafficked to a brothel in India. Each chapter is written poetically so that violence is never graphically depicted. Texts such as this can potentially foster global awareness and empathy, such as by sensitising students to the reality that over 21 million people today are victims of forced labour, about 20 per cent of whom are children.

Third, teachers should encourage students to compare perspectives by clustering texts around similar themes. It is unfortunate that at the upper secondary level, students typically spend two years studying one novel and/or one play. Not only does this perpetuate extreme close reading, it discounts the fact that literary texts are constructed from the perspective of an author and should be interrupted by alternative cultural perspectives.

Clustering texts reduces the pressure on teachers to select the most aesthetically exemplary text and instead, liberates the classroom by encouraging students to read canonical works alongside lesser known, more contemporary ones. Reading more texts with less support also encourages students to become independent readers, and to develop a life-long love for reading outside the classroom.

Literature offers a powerful platform for students to explore and think in a more complex way about ethics and ethical relations in the world.

Rather than emphasise formulaic analysis of literary techniques, the literature classroom should provide an inclusive and dialogic space to help students grapple with the ethical tensions and ambiguities in the world today.


  • Suzanne Choo is an assistant professor in the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education. Philip Holden is professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'English literature in schools: Time to update the plot?'. Print Edition | Subscribe