Ong Sor Fern

Embrace Shakespeare, Austen too

Last month, The Straits Times reported that more secondary schools are using Singaporean works to teach literature - 32, up from 18 in 2011. Two writers give their take on the move, and what this means for students' literary education.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  -- PHOTO: ST FILE

I did not enjoy Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment, hated Samuel Richardson's Pamela and found George Eliot's Middlemarch infuriating.

But I ploughed through them, as they were part of my university's literature syllabus.

Given a choice, it is unlikely I would have voluntarily read these demanding novels. Being forced to deal with them was an education in all senses of the word. The books taught me about societies, people and points of view very far from my daily milieu.

From Dostoyevsky, I learnt sympathy for the devil, thanks to a psychologically acute portrait of a criminal with a serious case of moral guilt. The lesson I took from Pamela was to be aware of the trap of morality when women are made to carry its burden and men exempt from its responsibilities. Middlemarch taught me that one should walk the talk in all aspects of one's life because I objected to the author's upholding of Victorian values in her work when her personal life was a flagrant repudiation of its strictures.

I thought about my experience, when I read about more secondary school teachers in Singapore using local works so that the subject of literature is less intimidating for students.

The move is perfectly understandable. Singapore texts with their colloquial language and familiar settings offer immediacy of tone and easy relatability, a boon to students for whom English is not their strong suit.

And it is about time the school system embraced the vibrancy of Singapore writing which has bloomed in unexpectedly luxuriant ways despite the dry soil.

There are many books out there suitable for study, from Suchen Christine Lim's novels with their epic historic sweep, to a raft of home-grown poets whose contemporary verses will resonate with a younger crowd.

But schools should not focus so much on Singapore texts that they neglect the international canon. Schools should also be brave enough to embrace the challenge of teaching William Shakespeare and Jane Austen to 12-year-olds.

Because the whole point of literature is not just grades but an education. Therein lies the rub, because Singapore has thrived, for decades, on an education system that emphasises grades almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Literature went from being a compulsory subject to an optional one, thanks to the perennial complaint that it was "hard to score" and "difficult to understand". And once it became optional, attendance nose-dived. From 16,970 students taking it as an O-level subject in 1992, the figure plunged to 3,000 in 2012.

But is this decline such a surprise in pragmatic Singapore?

The paper chase here has become more intense. With the almighty university degree seen as a passport to a good job and a good life, students cannot really be blamed for avoiding a subject they regard as a potential minefield.

The education system is skewed so heavily in favour of practical subjects that one must be mad or suicidal to take on a subject that promises nothing in return. Nothing, that is, except a more questioning mind, a more open intellect and a more tolerant soul. Hopefully.

This tenuous payoff - no guarantees, no easy grades - is at once the Achilles heel, and the strongest argument in favour, of the subject. Despite the arguments made in favour of literature over the years, the numbers stubbornly prove that students are making practical choices again and again.

So, perhaps the recurrent angst over the lack of student interest in the subject is misdirected. What one should be looking at is not the student but the education system. If the point of the system is to be a paper mill, then literature will forever stay in the doldrums.

If the point, however, is to produce engaged, curious human beings, then literature has to be compulsory. It is as simple as that.

In this social media age, where the easy echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter feed ever narrowing perspectives back at their consumers, literature is an indiscriminate broadcaster that demands its reader open up to alternative viewpoints. To me, that is the ultimate argument in its favour in this Internet age.

And to be effective, literature has to be taught in all its difficult, challenging, prickly glory.

Use Singapore writers by all means as an entry point. But read Shakespeare, Homer and Dickens too. The argument about language barriers cuts no ice with me, because I have seen some of the complicated mathematics questions tackled at primary level nowadays. If children can be taught to decipher those, Shakespeare should be a breeze. It all boils down to whether Singaporeans want to make that choice - do they want their children to get good grades, or get a good education?