LITERATURE is not for the faint-hearted and the practical. It’s a tough subject, it’s hard to score, and it’s dwindling in student numbers: 3,000 in 2013, compared to 16,970 in 1992. Some quarters of our society have winced and whined about those numbers, particularly the pro-humanities set.
I don’t know if they can count on me to give voice to their campaign because there are times when I consider myself a fool to go down this path of teaching writing and literature, one that’s winding ever narrower by the year. Fool too to have made enquiries about a Master of Education for English Literature at the National Institute of Education a few months ago, only to find that the average cohort size is five. That really makes the word cohort look a little out of place and the concept of an old-boy network rather funny.
But Singaporeans are pragmatists. Those numbers are justifiable, given how poetry is so difficult to decipher. Besides, where and how is Shakespeare going to be of any relevance in the working world, unless you had in mind to master some of the devious arts of Iago and Macbeth, or the deep thinking of Hamlet? And if your writing skills were somewhat questionable, why plunge yourself into a subject that would expose you to that very weakness? Go tell them that Literature would help them read better, think better, and hence write better, they’d give you a look and go, “You’re kiddin’ me?”
But I kid no one. Just look at the types of questions we’ve been getting in the English Language comprehension exams since 2013 when the higher-ups decided to launch a new-look format, refreshed and rejigged to suit our ultra-modern times. I don’t care what label you apply to these questions—inference or implied or whatever—all you need to know is that they are dripping with literary enquiry.
From Text 2 of the ‘O’ Level 2014 paper, about two young rock climbers called Deering and Angus, we have three:
- Explain how the language used in Paragraph 1 emphasizes the lack of visibility on the mountain. [3 marks]
- What does this phrase suggest about the style of the language he actually used in the preceding sentence? [1 mark]
- There are two stories in this passage and each story features a survival manual. What was the effect of following the manual’s advice in: (i) the writer’s story [1 mark], and (ii) the story of Deering and Angus? [1 mark]
Questions (1) and (2) require you to comment about language. That’s just the kind of exercise a Literature student has to deal with for a living, in the same way he has to train his eye to catch the plot, or to appreciate textured narratives that capture a story within a story, the kind suggested in Question (3).
Then, there’s this fresh-off-the-exam-hall prelim question that doesn’t ask you directly “to comment about language,” but demands the same language-driven thinking to tackle it. The question is directed at a characterization of Marina Silva, a Brazilian politician, who grew up in the rubber plantations, illiterate until she was 16.
The two-mark question goes like this:
In Paragraph 2, Silva says “I always say I was illiterate until I was 16 but I already had a PhD in the ways of the world.” What is unusual and effective about the phrase “PhD in the ways of the world.”
And here’s my suggested response:
Silva was illiterate and it is unusual, even audacious, for her to claim she has a PhD, but the phrase is obviously used as a figure of speech, an effective metaphor to show how wise she is in the ways of the world.
Which is what most comprehension questions are after in these ultra-modern, yet Literature-unfriendly times. They want to test your understanding of imagery, and your ability to articulate it, not necessarily its literal meaning, but always its figurative one. Of course, imagery is only a bite of it when it comes to language commentary. There’s diction, tone, even color (which is how you could have responded to Question (1) on the lack of visibility on the mountain).
There are also many other skills these deceptively lightweight single-, double-mark questions get at, mostly testing your powers of observation, analysis, even characterization (don’t we all love those “impression” questions?)
It may be true that us literary types are sillies, driven by a rose-colored idealism and love for a subject that doesn’t seem to have the fuel to run up high scores. But the training literature gives our minds, though hardly measurable, shows up tangibly elsewhere: our attitude towards words—fussier, pickier perhaps—and our ability to read not just for sustenance and knowledge but pleasure. And in these ultra-modern times of speedy, patchy cyber- and e-reading, that can actually be quite beneficial (and practical) for the mind and the soul.
For a suggested response to Question (1) on the lack of visibility on the mountain, read The Active Voice of Lee Kuan Yew