The Sky Is Falling

It seems like there are fewer English lit students than before, and a corresponding muddleheadedness about why, exactly, this should be a problem. Everyone and their dog loves e-lit, but nobody has, to me, put forth an even halfway convincing case of the value of English Literature education in Singapore.

More than 150 years ago, Thomas Babington Macaulay (here pictured) made a forceful argument for precisely this kind of education in India:

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

This is the origin of e-lit in the commonwealth—as a means for the British to govern not just politically, but also culturally, aesthetically. E-lit is important because it is in English, and English is better because English is more civilised. And we, we teachers and writers and think-soldiers in think-tanks, continue to reproduce this mindset in every appeal to its importance. Good interpreters.

Most recently, Tan Tarn How makes the same civilisational appeal: studying e-lit will develop Singapore arts and culture, and breed the next writers and playwrights (such as himself). Joshua Ip suggests, horrifically, cynically, that e-lit be branded as a vehicle for social climbing and a way to become a good propagandist (an MBA and public speaking coaching seem more appropriate skills for those ends). Others have been more nuanced. Two broad categories of reasoning seem to have arisen.

1. E-lit imparts value. This ranges from ‘critical reasoning’ to ‘writing’ to ‘creativity’ to ’morals/empathy,’ always tied up with appeals to the 21st Century, global, interconnected economy, whatever that means, and dark mutterings about the Lacanian Other. This confuses e-lit with rhetoric, composition, creative writing (ignoring the capacity for any subject to inspire creativity), and being a good human being, respectively. This reasoning also fails to explain why it is English lit that is at stake for all these matrices of value.

2. E-lit is absolutely useless. But it is somehow still good (Obviously, one can only make the case for 1. or 2., never both). I suppose there is something to be said about uselessness, or the refusal to capitulate to pure utilitarianism that gets to the heart of what makes a human, but that does not argue for teaching e-lit. Why not do this useless thing outside school, where it will automatically be more fun, anyhow.

This blogpost, which reproduces responses from a 2013 Straits Times article on the subject, seems to support my analysis:

James Ong, principal: “Literature teaches lessons about human behaviour, values and how to relate to people. Education is about making people better, and this is part of education.” (1., ‘morals/empathy’)

Janice Koh: “educators and people in the creative sectors had told her that the quality of thought and argument, and the ability to communicate ideas among young people today had gone down.” (1., ‘rhetoric’ and ‘composition’)

Felix Cheong: a place has “a bit more soul in it” if its people read and appreciate books [….] you develop a sense of empathy towards people. (1., ‘morals/empathy’)

Alvin Pang: “The study of literature requires students to make sense of ambiguous data, multiple or even conflicting sources of information, and different points of view.” (1., ‘rhetoric’)

Tan Hwee Hwee: “The Singapore Government is always telling us they would love Singaporeans to be more creative. Literature is valuable in helping students think more creatively.” (1., ‘creativity’)

Secondary 5 student Charlene Ang, 16, said she had never read poems before she studied Literature, but she is now able to analyse them [….] “now I find that it helps to improve my English” (1., ‘rhetoric’)

Secondary 4 student Tan Ying Shan, 16, said that after studying the play Boom, by playwright Jean Tay, she changed her perspective on her parents and is working on her attitude towards them. (1., ‘morals/empathy’)

Cyril Wong: “Our larger Singaporean culture has to change and evolve to include a love for less tangible things, such as modes of aesthetic appreciation and artistic expression.” (2.)

Suzanne Choo: “In contrast to values education that is didactic, involving the transmission of values in a top-down and fact-based manner, literature education equips students to negotiate the multiplicity of values and belief systems of diverse cultures.” (1., ‘morals/empathy’)

Bay Ming Ching: “Taking literature is its own good and it does not need any other justification to exist.” (2.)

My conclusion: let e-lit die a natural death. Clearly, the things we want to teach in our students are either better taught in other disciplines, or give e-lit and its teachers a responsibility that parents should rightfully be bearing (morals, empathy). Replace e-lit with logic, grammar, rhetoric, composition, creative writing. In any of the four official languages. Encourage translation studies. I promise you: if all that is taught right, people will enjoy the uselessness of e-lit like never before.

Hao Guang Tse