Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Literature

Reading Literature.

Reading and then Literature came to my rescue at a time when I knew very little of the language and eons before the “Speak Good English” campaign began exhorting Singaporeans to speak good English. I was lucky in one other way – I had good teachers – self-confident, dedicated and free from central controls -  and a school environment which insisted that everybody, teachers and students, spoke good English.

No other distractions, no other politics with regard to language teaching and learning, and no other strains of English distracted us from the acquisition of standard English. I was thirteen when I switched from my mother-tongue, Malayalam to English. It was not an easy adjustment to make but then I had no - where to go except to English if I wanted to be part of the mainstream of society.

During my struggles with the language I discovered the pleasures of reading and literature. Reading newspapers, magazines and all the self-help books and self-improvements books that form the bulk of reading in Singapore don’t count, certainly not in developing one’s language skills and an appreciation of its beauty. 

But literature offers more than that and nobody extols the role of reading and literature  better than Harold Bloom, that great authority on the subject:

“There is a prime reason why we should read: Information is endlessly available to us but where shall wisdom be found?... Reading is one of the most healing of pleasures… Ultimately we read to strengthen ourselves.”

“Searching for truth, I turn to fiction” wrote Joseph Nye, the author of “The Power Game: A Washington Novel.” He is the former dean of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University and was responsible for the Carter administration’s efforts to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a longtime professor of international politics he used to suggest that his students supplement their academic readings with films and novels. In a recent article in The International herald Tribune” ( 11 March 2005) he explained why.

In fiction, he said, he could elaborate the dreams and nightmares involved, ‘describe the struggles for power, the effects they have on friendships, and the problems of sorting out moral obligations…He wanted ‘to portray the way policy is influenced by the seductiveness of power, the temptations to prevail and the struggles to maintain one’s moral compass.’ Academic abstractions could not convey what it is like to wrestle with issues, as powerfully and as imaginatively as fiction could.

Another book “The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature”, edited by Peter (a leading moral philosopher) and Renata Singer, draws on some of the best works of fiction, plays and poetry to demonstrate how literary sources can add richness to discussions of real-life moral questions and dilemmas.

There are many more reasons for studying Literature for it offers immense opportunities in the classroom for developing the power of the imagination, creative thinking, critical and analytical skills, and writing skills, all of which are current major concerns for educationist in Singapore today.

Unfortunately, literature was dropped from core curriculum in Singapore schools when it became focused on exams- for the achievement short-term gains rather than long-term goals of preparing young people for life and citizenship responsibilities. A 2002 survey in the United States (IHT 13 April 2005) suggests a correlation between a decline in reading with a decline in arts participation, declining levels of historical and political awareness and writing skills.

And a decline in the standard of English in Singapore. The best way to teach or learn a language is through Literature. In some countries, (for instance in Australia where English is the first language) literature and language are combined. So should our schools in Singapore.

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