Literature a casualty of an economically driven testocracy

From ‘Is the subject worth saving?’, 28 Feb 2013, ST Forum

(Warren Mark Liew, Dr): AS A literature educator, I am troubled by the huge drop in the number of students taking pure literature at the upper secondary level (“More subjects to choose from, so fewer take pure literature”; Tuesday).

Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah explained that this decrease was the result of more curricular choices being offered to students over the years, particularly in the form of combined humanities. Students taking combined humanities at the O levels study compulsory social studies, but have to choose one of three humanities subjects: literature, history or geography.

Given these statistics, one is left wondering: Did “more curricular choices” lead more students to choose history and geography over literature, or even to avoid combined humanities altogether? More than 10 years ago, media reports suggested that literature was becoming less popular because many perceived the subject to be difficult to score in. According to official data, however, the pass and distinction rates in literature have increased slightly over the last 10 years.

…Educational research suggests that our nation’s economic growth has depended in part on a tried-and-tested “testocracy” – a system of meritocracy based on high-stakes tests such as the Primary School Leaving Examination; the O, N and A levels; and increasingly, the Scholastic Assessment Test and the International Baccalaureate. If literature has, in fact, become a casualty of an economically driven testocracy, then the real test is to answer the question: Are the “returns on investment” for literature profitable enough for the MOE to promote it as a subject in the national curriculum?

Being a bookworm doesn’t guarantee a calling for English Literature, as I found out for myself the hard way, when mugging for the subject made me lose interest in reading other works by Shakespeare. Instead of being left in a pristine manner as all great classics ought to be, my copies of Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice were vandalised with scribblings and yellow highlights. Unlike the rote ease of history and geography, literature requires the flexing of a different set of brain muscle, and if you’re selective in your readings just to score in the exams, you’ll find yourself not just failing to appreciate double entrendres or the subtleties of human conflict, but embarrass yourself in trivia quizzes where you’re forced to recall names of Shakespearean characters beyond Shylock, Hamlet and the proverbial lovefools Romeo and Juliet, and the only line you can recite from the entire collection is ‘To be or not to be…’.

Besides having a vested interest in promoting the subject, the writer also suggests that our being a ‘TESTOCRACY’ has something to do with the decline of Eng Lit, though Testocracy sounds like a system of chest-thumping government where the only way to ascend to the elite is getting pumped on steroids and there is a clear bias towards alpha-people with balls the size of young coconuts. I would hazard another guess as to why Literature no longer enthralls us like it used to: Kids just don’t READ any more. If they could find the time to squeeze in some books outside of Facebook and online gaming, it wouldn’t be based on material that would be adapted into plays, but blockbuster trilogies in 3-D with all the nourishing nuance replaced by explosive visuals . Hardcore literature isn’t for the faint-hearted nor those with the attention span of a gnat. It struggles to remain relevant in a fast-paced world saturated with social media, shorthand messaging and other flashy, addictive distractions that cry for your fleeting attention rather than an in-depth analysis of character. It’s like flower arrangement class for race-car drivers.

If you have kids reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings for an exam instead of A Tale of Two Cities, you’re likely to get high scorers, because students would willingly form communities to discuss JK and JRR’s works without being forced into project groups in class. You don’t see fanboys and girls gushing over King Lear, yet you can’t choose a subject that kids actually LIKE reading for fun. Yes, a literature text is meant to be ‘appreciated’ like one siphons insight off the Bible. A ‘breezy’, light-hearted romp would make literature class a bookworm club that dabbles in the exact opposite of literature: Pop fiction. It would make a stuffy title like Professor of Literature sound like Chief Librarian of the Teenagers section.

The standard argument for literature is that it’s the Chicken Soup of O Level subjects; good for the soul. Some advocate it for ‘inculcating moral values’ and ‘enriching’ us all with ‘independent thinking’ and ‘creativity’. In that sense, Eng Lit puts the ‘humanity’ in our ‘humanities’. History never teaches us anything objective and Geography teaches you what an isthmus is but not how flash floods occur. It is, however, impossible to prove that literature actually makes us better human beings or speakers/writers of the language as lovers of the subject like to claim. I would argue that having responsible parents, a benevolent religion, keeping up to date on world events, well-travelled, a volunteer, a general lover of non-fiction or philosophy or even joining the debating club would make you a ‘complete’ human being without the hassle of memorising what Brutus said before he slew Caesar for an exam (which you may even have trouble passing).

It’s not so much the pursuit of excellence that makes Literature unsexy but the runaway treadmill that is modern life. Literature should remain strictly for those who love it, like vintage cheese that smells sweet to a epicurean but like sweaty underpants to the novice. Many highly successful people have no shame declaring that they have never read a single novel in their life. So what good is the subject for in this age of the 140-character limit? To me, it’s knowing how to cheekily slide your way with semantics out of a mutilation (pound of flesh), impressing a date (a rose by any other name…) and being absolutely essential if you wish to pursue a career as a ‘hip-hop artist’ or a lyricist for a crossover New-age choir of Gregorian monks. It also comes in handy if you intend to craft either the most touching proposal letter to your fiance, or the most heartbreaking suicide note in history.


One Response

  1. […] Everything Also Complain: Literature a casualty of an economically driven testocracy – Ng E-Jay’s Financial Markets Trading: Gold and Silver — At critical […]

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