The following is something which I wrote to the Today newspaper, not sure if they’ll print it.
Behind much of the hand-wringing and angst over the diminishing place of literature in our public education lies the rather disingenuous evasion of what should be the central issue in this discussion: What justification is there for encouraging or even making compulsory a uniform literature education in public education?
Other commenters on the subject such as Nazry Bahrawi and our Minister Tan Chuan-Jin have (rightly in my opinion), already rejected the “functional” arguments for literature, e.g. enhancing reading/critical thinking skills, etc. Functional arguments merely subject literature to its utility which far from proving its indispensability merely justifies its abandonment should it fail to perform its function or be superseded by other subjects which are able to perform it as well if not better.
The other alternatives to functional justifications are (1), the complete rejection of all justifications, art for art’s sake or (2) to suggest some sort of “mystical” (or magical!) link between literature and the human nature which necessitates the public provision and enforcement of a literature curriculum.
The latter is the argument adopted by Ms Bahrawi where she argues that we “need” literature because “we simply cannot live without it” and that “humans are meaning-seeking creatures hardwired for narratives. We tell stories to make sense of the world, imagine alternatives and explore our neuroses. We need literature like we need air.” However, even if it were true that human nature necessitates such narratives (a questionable claim at best), it does not follow the public education must provide it. After all, does the government provide air? If there is such a “need”, they can simply get it from book shops. Furthermore, why is literature the best medium for providing narratives? The television, movies, even the internet provide a far vaster myriad of alternatives and food for the imagination surpassing anything which a uniform literature education can provide.
The only justification for literature as the medium of narrative provision over other forms is to suggest some form of “elitist” “high brow” versus “low brow” form of art. This is an argument which I believe Ms Bahrawi would be loathed to make. Given the fact that we live in a multicultural society, upon what basis does the literati “elite” judge literature to be a “superior” form of narrative over the television programs or the movies? To quote the poet Wordsworth,
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
In fact, given our plural culture and narratives, is there even any basis for a uniform literature education? A uniform literature education would make sense in a monolithic culture with uniform narratives, but in a society such as ours, this simply strikes one as patently absurd. How is the literature curriculum to be decided? Are schools going to teach biblical, koranic, or Buddhist “narratives”, which has a greater claim given their actual reality in our society? By what judgement do they decide which “narrative” is worthy of state enforcement?
The psychologist-philosopher Walter Davis once remarked, “What after all is religion but a desire displacing itself into dogmas all the better to assure the flock that what they desire is writ into the nature of things?” One might wonder indeed if the literati elite themselves have not been taken in by their own “religious” myth, the myth that the literary narrative form which they so love and desire has been “writ into the nature of things”, into the heart of human “nature”. In this light, a state enforced literature education seems nothing more than enforced religious dogmatism writ large.