I have been waiting to read a view that opposes the “pro-Lit’’ camp who bemoan the dismally small number of students pursuing Literature as a subject. No dice. Perhaps, the volume level of the “pro-Lit’’ camp has drowned out the “no-Lit” camp; or perhaps, they can’t out-argue the pro-Lit camp, even though there must be oh, so many more of them who think that Literature is, well, rubbish. And even if not rubbish, the subject is simply not good enough for my child to take for his or her O levels.
I wonder why the silence? All this will do is show that the pro-Lit camp is correct. Their views go un-challenged because, having studied literature, they can analyse better, critique better and write better. That’s why the rest, illiterate louts better at the computer or calculator, simple have no response.
Okay, before you get me wrong, I belong to the “pro-Lit’’ camp although I can’t say that I fell in love with the subject in secondary school, where my teachers usually just made us read prose or poetry aloud and asked us to write essays. It was the teachers in junior college who showed me that literature is more than just reading the classics and Shakespeare. That language can be used in many ways, to appease, deceive, placate or outrage. That a story can contain many messages, even contradictory ones. And that there can be many points of view, and all of them could be right.
This is the reason for the perception that it’s hard to score in Lit. Unlike mathematics, there is no formula that leads to just one answer.
I’m glad that the teaching of Literature has advanced somewhat, going by what The Sunday Times reported. One article gave two examples of how lit is taught. For Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, for example, the teacher got his students to compare the “taming’’ with the taming of women in other societies through stories and plays by Jamaica Kincaid, Kyoko Mori, Maxine Hong Kingston and Stella Kon.
Academic Suzanne Choo gave the best reason for the study of literature: “While literature education does foster aesthetic appreciation and a taste for good writing, what we often forget is that when students are asked to respond to questions such as “What makes us sympathise with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart”, “Is justice served at the end of Macbeth”, or “How does the writer develop the sense of irony in the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est”, they need to consider the underlying beliefs determining a character’s intentions and behaviour, thus affecting our feelings towards him or her, the different social-cultural values influencing how concepts such as justice are perceived, and the ways in which literary techniques contribute to the implied author’s philosophical proposition in the text. In short, these are questions requiring critical engagements with values.’’
The study of Literature isn’t about reading old books with old words. Or even new books with new words. It is about learning to read “critically’’ and to appreciate the way language is used to convey different meanings. I will go so far as to say that a background in literature makes you a bit more media literate (now.. that’s a term that’s terribly in vogue for those who think literature belongs to the Middle Ages or for the middle-aged).
We are surrounded by media and it takes a critical eye to sieve the wheat from the chaff, to grasp underlying messages and to spot flaws in logic. This is a useful skill in any economy. Someone who can do so will usually be able to formulate their thoughts better, organise an argument better or present a case better. They are open to differing views and have the language capacity to take it all in, so to speak. They are comfortable with “uncertainty’’; that there is sometimes no right answer, and we can all agree to disagree. Now if that is not a useful skill in any profession, I don’t know what else is. What is knowledge if you do not have the skill to communicate what you know and make yourself understood?
Enough of that.
I really want to hear from the other side of the fence. The schools which discourage literature as a subject, the parents who prefer that their children do mathematics, the students who think literature is a waste of time – where are you?
If you believe that literature is a “soft’’ subject and waste of time, as compared to say, a “hard’’ subject, tell us why. If you think there’s no money to be made specialising in literature, well, that’s probably true, but what about a basic grounding? If you think the problem is the way schools teach literature, then share with us your story.
We should hear from you too.