Monday, March 25, 2013

Does this spell the end of literature?

Last month, there was some debate on the drop in number of students taking Literature at 'O' levels from 16,970 in 1992 to just 3,000 in 2012, and whether this signals a decline in appreciation of the humanities among students. You can read the news article here.

While the drop in numbers sounds terribly alarming, I always hesitate to take numbers at face value. Instantly, two "BUTS" came to mind:

1) BUT: Wouldn't the decline also be due to the drop in number of kids taking 'O' levels?  Today, with the IP and other alternative educational pathways, many kids no longer take 'O' levels.

2) BUT: There are more 'O' level subjects these days, compared to 20 years ago. Wouldn't the increase in choice automatically dilute the number of kids taking any one subject (except for compulsory subjects)?

MOE's reply shed more light.  With reference to my point 2), it seems that the drop happened most drastically at the 2001 point when Combined Humanities was introduced.  This is a social studies subject with an elective of Lit, Geog or History and became a popular alternative to the other pure humanities subjects - Lit, Geog and History.

With regards to point 1) though, it's still a little hazy. MOE reveals the percentage of sec 4 cohort that took Lit in 1992 (47.9%), 2001 (21.8%) and 2012 (9%) but it's important to note that a percentage of the Sec 4 cohort not the same as a percentage of the 'O' level cohort.

A drop in 'O' level Lit does not necessarily translate into an equivalent drop in kids studying Lit at sec 4. In many IP schools, Lit is a compulsory subject for sec 4 kids as they take Language Arts (which is a fusion of English and Lit).  For the IB programme, Lit is compulsory all the way to year 6.

Typically also, even from the 1990s, Lit has been considered the more challenging humanities subject (because it requires critical thinking and language skills, not something you can mug for it), so it is usually reserved for the more academic classes (usually the top science and arts classes).  If you postulate that these kids are now likely in the IP track at secondary school, then it's no surprise that Lit has fizzled out in the 'O' level arena.

Beyond the numbers

Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the number of students studying Lit (whether at 'O' levels or not) has declined.  Perhaps not as drastically as the numbers suggest but still undeniable... and that's sad.  I won't bother to write all about the importance of Lit since I'd already done so previously.  Besides, I came across this passionate Facebook post by Joshua Ip, which laid out all the points very convincingly.  It's a little over the top (there's a little bit of theatre in every true blue Lit student) but the points are pretty solid and more substantial than any argument I'd read in the mainstream media.  Plus it's a highly entertaining read, which reflects well on his Lit background.
This decline in Lit is not just about Lit alone. Looking at the bigger picture, it reflects the persistent worldview that the humanities in general are the poor cousin to the firmly footed maths and science.  After 20 years, the triple science combination is still considered the most prestigious in your sec 3 choices. In some schools, only the "top" students are offered the combination. In Lesley-Anne's school, there's no real humanities combination - you either take triple science or double science. Double maths is compulsory.

Moving on to 'A' levels, this bias continues. The 'A' level syllabus now requires you to choose a contrasting subject to create balance, ie science students have to take at least one humanities subject and arts students have to take at least one science subject.  In theory, this is great but in reality, I find the practice flawed.

If you're in the science stream, you can choose from a long list of humanities subjects, eg. 3rd language, Geog, Lit, History, Music, Art and Econs.  I always felt that Econs was such a miscategorisation.  It's nowhere remotely near a true humanities subject that encourages the broadening of worldviews or right brain thinking.  It's about statistics and trends, and the analyses are more akin to the scientific type.  That's why many science students choose Econs as their contrasting subject - yet another "pragmatic" choice.

Whereas if you're in the arts stream, you're pretty much limited to one contrasting subject - Maths.  Don't believe me? Most JCs don't offer science subjects as a contrasting subject, meaning that if you don't like maths, you're pretty much screwed.  It also sends a very clear message - the most important subject in the Singapore education system is MATHS MATHS MATHS.

Don't misunderstand me, I acknowledge that maths is important.  However, I find this obsession with maths baffling. The maths proponents tend to play up the pragmatic value of learning maths but honestly, most people will never apply the kind of maths you learn at 'A' levels.  If you want to focus on pragmatics, I would have thought it's more important to learn about human geography (urban planning!) or human biology (understand your body!).  I suspect this practice is again linked to scoring - Maths is one of those subjects with the highest percentage of distinctions at 'A' level so it's attractive to JCs looking to raise their overall scores. 

Quality not quantity

I was chatting with a teacher friend recently and he mentioned that he happened to see one of his sec 3 student's Lit essays. He was perturbed to see it littered with grammatical errors that were not corrected by the teacher.  Upon questioning, she replied "Miss W said in Lit, we're not marked on grammar, only based on the points we give."

Stab a knife through my heart now, won't ya.  Is that how we're addressing the difficulty to score in Lit, by reducing it to a factual content subject?  I don't think the teacher recognised the irony of it - that a subject supposed to test your critical thinking and arguments is awarded marks according to a marking template.  Instead of embracing the humanities, we try to turn it into something more scientific.  And when English ceases to matter in English Lit, well... I've no words.

I was so appalled by this that I checked with Lesley-Anne if it was the same at her school.  Thankfully, she shared my disbelief and said no, her Lit assignments are marked on both language and content, where original arguments are valued.  Phew.  So maybe it's just that school or that teacher.  I hope and pray that's not how Lit is marked at 'O' levels these days.

It's a sad state of affairs.  It's the belief that education in Singapore is still primarily about scoring.  There's a lot of talk about holistic education, creativity and critical thinking but the truth is, so many educators, parents and students are still stuck in the old mindset that education is about amassing facts and A's.

Lesley-Anne had this to say: "The problem is many students are still learning things in isolation, so they don't understand the relevance of what they learn beyond the narrow confines of that subject. Even English becomes relevant only to the English subject in school. So many things in the world are linked.  When we are unable to see the inter-connectedness of different issues, we miss the big picture. How then can we innovate and solve problems?"

I love how a 15-year-old can have the wisdom to see this truth where many adults cannot. I couldn't have said it better myself.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Sometimes the marking scheme makes a mockery of the learning process.


Anonymous said...

When I reminded Little Bao to becareful of his grammar in his Literature assignments, my jaw dropped and I was stunned into silence after he told me that their Literature work will not be penalised for grammatical mistakes.


monlim said...

Nutella: Noooo.... means it's a common practice! :(

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