The literature component was first introduced in 2001 at lower secondary level. The feedback to it in the article is extremely positive. I was particularly interested to learn that one of Universiti Malaya Professor Lim Chee Seng's postgraduate students, who is doing a study on the teaching of literature in the English language syllabus for the national curriculum:
... found that about 70 per cent of students across Malaysia love the literature component that has been inserted into the English language syllabus.70%!
That statistic interests me, and I'd love to take a look at the methodology used to arrive at that figure.
In my previous reincarnation I was preparing my students to work with those texts in the classroom. So many of the pieces chosen for the syllabus were gloomy and too far from the kids' own experience to really be accessible without a lot of help. Just to give one or two examples:
A Samad Said's The Dead Crow might be a much better poem in the Malay original, but it's very limp in its English translation. Haven't stronger poems been written on the theme of pollution?
While Macbeth's Life's Brief Candle soliloquy is great stuff, will young adolescents be able to take on board the utter despair of it, and what more when it is taken completely out of context? (Who is this bloke Macbeth anyway?)
Don't get me wrong, I do whole heartedly believe that Shakespeare should be taught in schools, but the only brush with the bard at Upper Secondary levels is Sonnet 18. I've sat at the back of innumerable classrooms watching sweating kids kids under ceiling fans struggle with the concept of finding a hot, sunny day desirable (when, of course, they long for cool overcast ones).
I've watched students struggle with a particularly gloomy choice of text Emily Dickinson's There's Been a Death in the Opposite House, not so much because the description of the funeral is so foreign to our Malaysian kids, but because it necessarily opens up some painful discussion in the classroom ("Tell me about a funeral you recently attended") which needs to be handled sensitively.
I'm not arguing that young people should not be exposed to texts that are difficult or outside their own experience - literature should stretch us all, should take us to places we've never been before. But if for most kids the component is going to be their only brush with literature - why shouldn't the texts be enjoyable and accessible and directly relevant?
As it happens the component is currently being reviewed. I was asked to go and take part in the selection of texts, but got waylaid by other things I'd promised to do. I'm very proud to see that the team includes one of my former teacher-training students, and I'm sure they will do a good job.
Methodology - how the subject is taught - is another issue, of course.
While I was goggling around I came across this piece by Amir Muhammad which originally appeared in the New Straits Times in 1999 about the literature component (and it gives a complete list of texts used at different levels at the end). Amir raises one of the most important questions - teaching literature in the classroom effectively demands a move to greater democracy in the classroom, a move away from the teacher as font of all knowledge. Personal response and personal opinion, matter far more.
But how far is this possible when students are examined on their knowledge of the texts? Most of the questions (as I remember) are multiple choice. I've also heard (from a chief examiner) that in the open questions brighter students who give imaginative answers run the risk of losing marks because they don't give the examiner what they expect! Just regurgitate what your teacher told you and you will do fine.
Having thusly ranted, I must say that I am still glad that literature is on the syllabus and I'd like to see teachers making even more use of literary texts in their classes - for fun, for enjoyment, to touch the students' hearts. Because no one (apart from parents) can build the initial love of books as teachers can.
I'd particularly love to hear from some of the younger readers of this blog who have studied the literature component in school - how did you find it? Would you consider yourself in that 70% that love it? Why? Why not?
Parents, teachers ... anyone, your views are very welcome too.