Today in the Straits Times is an article on the decline of Literature students. It's not the first time they've reported on this and it always annoys me to read about this topic on MSM because they tend to skim the surface without digging deeper. There's no analysis to speak of and they focus superficially on the numbers as if that gives legitimacy to the story.
No doubt, Lit has become less popular but WHY? Fewer kids taking Lit means kids are not interested? More schools
offering Lit suddenly means the situation is improving? They interviewed one student who said she didn't take Lit because Lit was hard and they thought that explained everything? Many kids, even in my generation, found Lit hard. That hasn't changed.
1) The more basic flaw when looking at numbers: You can't look at the decline in the absolute number of students taking Lit at 'O' levels over the years and simply conclude that Lit is less popular because the NUMBER OF 'O' LEVEL STUDENTS HAS DECLINED OVER THE YEARS. Duh.
In 2012, 37,267 students sat for the 'O' levels. In 2014 just two years later, the number had dropped to 30,964. All numbers found on the MOE website. In other words, the "worrying drop" in Lit students reported in the Strait Times article over the same period from 6,000 to 5,500 Lit students was just a corresponding drop in cohort size.
Even I, who's hopeless in Maths, can tell you that if you insist on harping on figures, looking at the
percentage of Lit students over the total number of kids sitting for 'O'
levels would at least be a more accurate reflection of reality.
Do you know why the 'O' level cohort has been systematically falling? Apart from the corresponding fall in birth rates, it's also because from 2004 when the IP programme was introduced, the PSLE top scorers have been siphoned off to IP schools, where kids skip the 'O' levels. The number of students going into IP schools increases every year, hence the 'O' level cohort continues to shrink. And because Lit is typically considered a hard subject, ie only top students would
take it, these students are likely in your IP schools, so the potential target audience has already been reduced.
2) The more complex issue: The way the education system is structured locally for 'O' levels is not conducive to kids taking up Lit and this is something I suspect many in the literary world who are trying to promote Lit in schools may not be aware of.
Let me share how 'O' level schools typically work. When you choose your subjects at sec 3, schools often offer only a few combinations. There are no more "Science" or "Arts" streams as in the past because in current day 'O' levels, you have to take at least one Science, one Maths and one Humanities subject. Quite commonly, a school would offer a Triple Science combination, a Double Science combination and a Combined Science combination. To fulfil the humanities criterion, most schools make students take Combined Humanities, which is half Social Studies and half an elective (Lit, Geography or History). In other words, when MSM reports that students prefer Combined Humanities over full Lit, it's not true. For most schools, Combined Humanities is COMPULSORY. The students don't have a choice. (I dare say many students absolutely abhor Social Studies).
So let's do a count of subjects: These would be your mandatory subjects: 1) English 2) Mother Tongue 3) E. Maths 4) Combined Humanities 5) one Science. That's 5 subjects. Many kids are told that if they want to increase their options at JC level, they should take another Science and A. Maths, so that makes 7 subjects. Many students take a total of 8 subjects so they may either choose yet another Science subject (hence Triple Science) or a less common subject (eg. Music, Design & Tech, Principles of Accounts) or another full humanities (Lit, History or Geog). This is where a student can choose to take full Lit as a subject if the school offers it.
However, many kids take only 7 subjects to lighten their workload, especially if they're looking to enter the Poly route (which requires only the calculation of 5 subjects for entry). Some schools even offer a 6-subject combination to help their weaker kids cope. Taking Lit as a subject is not an option for these kids, even if they're interested.
In other words, where would be the opportunity to take Lit? It's all very well to glibly say more kids should take Lit without understanding the constraints of the education system. In my generation, more kids took Lit but it wasn't so much that
more kids were interested in it. We just didn't have a choice and we took all subjects imposed on us depending on the stream we were put in.
To me, trying to force Lit down the 'O' level track is an uphill task because of the limitations of the education structure. Where I think we can make a bigger impact promoting Lit is among the IP schools. Lit requires analysis and higher order thinking, and on paper, the IP students have the ability. IP schools also have the advantage of not having to put their students through the 'O' levels, so they can focus on subjects that develop the mind instead of teaching to the test. Yet many IP schools don't practise this.
Lesley-Anne was from the IP track. I was constantly frustrated at how her secondary school was narrowly exam-focused, despite IP touting freedom of academic and intellectual pursuit. At sec 3, the students were only offered two tracks: Triple Science or Double Science. In Triple Science (which formed majority of the classes), you had ZERO opportunity to take Lit (or any other full humanities subject). The combination was fixed as: English, Higher MT, 2 Maths, 3 Sciences, Social Studies. If you chose the Double Science combination, you could take one Humanities subject in place of the third science. This was the only option where you could choose Lit.
Lesley-Anne is clearly humanities-bound and she loves both Lit and Geography. But as you can see, her secondary school is so Science-biased (reinforcing the ancient fallacy that Science is superior) that there was no option for her to study both Lit and Geog. The best she could do was take up Double Science and she chose Lit. Oh, there was a very selective Humanities Programme where she could have studied a variety of arts subject but in order to get in, you had to score top marks in all your exam subjects at sec 2 (a large portion of which comprised Maths and Science subjects). Nothing about identifying those with special talent or interest in the humanities at all. What a farce.
The reason Lesley-Anne is enjoying JC so much more than secondary school is that at the JC level, you're allowed to study the subjects you enjoy. I'm not dissing the importance of Maths and Science, by the way. I'm rejecting the notion that they're considered so important that every kid has to study these at an advanced level whereas the Humanities are dubbed the inferior "can't do Science then I bopian do Arts" option.
I don't know if it's the same for all IP schools. I'm saying that there's a lot more potential for Lit to be taken up by students in these schools and if the obstacle is the schools' attitude towards the Humanities, then this is the area we should be looking at. If those looking to promote Lit in schools can engage IP school Principals and teachers, and change their mindset towards the Humanities, we might actually get somewhere in the long term.
And it's not just attitudes towards the Humanities, it's attitudes towards learning in general. As mentioned, IP schools should be focusing on learning more than scoring because that's what eliminating the 'O' levels was meant to do. Yet the legacy of this obsession over scoring dies hard. When Lesley-Anne decided to choose Lit in sec 3, her friends thought she was crazy. They felt she should have chosen Geog because she had topped her class in Geog in sec 2 - go with the "easier to score" option. But Lesley-Anne chose Lit because she decided that she loves Lit more and she enjoyed the lessons tremendously. I guess she had the last laugh because at the end of sec 4, she topped the level in Lit in her school.
It's a nice end to that chapter in her life but my point is that in our education system, there are more obstacles to taking Lit than just interest. The kids have to be very sure, they have to have support at home to go against the grain, because sometimes, the school doesn't encourage it. If kids, parents and teachers continue to view education as a numbers game obsessing over scores, Lit is fighting a losing battle.
Lit opens up our worldview and perspectives, and helps us see how language is used as an artform to influence emotion and shape opinions. Appreciating Lit takes time and that's part of the process of learning. If we are to promote Lit in schools, we need to jolt educators out of their misconception that there's more value to teaching a tangible concept like how molecules work than teaching about the depths of a human soul. We really have to move out of this rut of equating education with training, something I've written about before.
Back to the ST article, when journalists look at the numbers and think they tell the whole story of the state of Lit, they're ironically no different from the Maths/Science proponents. Delve deeper and ask the question why, beyond the numbers and without jumping to conclusion. Lit will teach you that.