Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Fostering the Hospitable Imagination through Cosmopolitan Pedagogies: Reenvisioning Literature Education in Singapore

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Fostering the Hospitable Imagination through Cosmopolitan Pedagogies: Reenvisioning Literature Education in Singapore

Article excerpt

In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded over three hundred ships setting sail from China toward major trading sites along India's southwest coast. Years later, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus would discover the New World in the Americas, and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama would make the voyage from Lisbon to establish the first sea route from Europe to the East. These men, among others, were catalysts in facilitating a global exchange of knowledge, goods, and culture along with the colonization of people. Today, the sense of transnational connectedness, encapsulated in the term globalization, has intensified more than in any other century in history. Yet, as the world becomes closer, it is also pulled apart by rising instances of global terrorism, xenophobia, inequality among rich and poor nations, and modern-day slavery. Increasingly, countries are turning into "world risk societies" (Beck, 2007), given the permeation of global risks in everyday local experiences, risks that can no longer be resolved by the nation-state alone. It is this fragility of our world that provides the opportune moment to reenvision the teaching of English literature.

The need for a reenvisioning comes at a time when the value of English literature education appears to be in question. While it once occupied a central position in national curricula, enrollment in the subject has undergone a continuing decline in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom.1 Not surprisingly, vocal defenses of English literature have largely come from these "native English-speaking countries" since the subject once played a vital role in fashioning their sense of national identity (Applebee, 1974; Eagleton, 1996). At the same time, those who claim that only the Westerner can write about any history or defense of English literature appeal to a myth of authenticity, the myth of a pure Anglophone race that can speak on behalf of English culture and cultural texts. The history of English literature and its defenses are incomplete without the participation of voices belonging to countries, such as Singapore, that were formerly colonized by Western powers and in which English literature was introduced, appropriated, and reconstructed.

This paper aims to contribute to the debate about the value of English literature education, henceforth termed literature education, from the perspective of a postcolonial and cosmopolitan country such as Singapore. It is not too far-fetched to claim that literature education has now reached a crisis point in Singapore. While the English language remains a compulsory first-language subject in all schools, literature education is marginalized. Enrollment in the subject at the upper secondary level (equivalent to grades 9 and 10) has fallen sharply over the last two decades. While 48% of the secondary school graduating cohort enrolled in the 1992 high-stakes national literature examination, that number declined to 22% in 2001, and subsequently to 9% (or about 3,000 students) in 2012 (Heng, 2013).2 A common excuse is that the introduction of new subjects such as computing and economics reduced the number of students choosing to study literature. The Minister of Education described how, to promote the subject, his ministry had organized regular sharing sessions and biennial seminars for teachers (Heng, 2013). Yet, these efforts pale in comparison to the government's investments in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as observed in various initiatives, such as a S$2.8 million grant to boost robotics and coding in schools; a science research mentorship program conducted in collaboration with universities and external organizations; and the establishment of two schools specializing in science, mathematics, and technology.

Both statistical evidence of literature education's demise and the lack of any government push to redress it point to the subject's perceived irrelevance to society. …

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