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Choo, Suzanne S. Cosmopolitan Literature Education in Singapore. RTE, May 2016. Posted 08/31/2016.

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Choo, Suzanne S. “Fostering the Hospitable Imagination through Cosmopolitan Pedagogies: Reenvisioning Literature Education in Singapore.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.4 (2016): 400-21. Print.

Suzanne S. Choo, an assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, advocates for “literature education” as a means of fostering “ethical cosmopolitanism” in students as a response to increasing pressures from globalization.

Choo documents a decline in the perceived value of literature in the United States and the United Kingdom as fewer students enroll in the subject (401, 418n1) and attributes a similar decline in Singapore to a number of factors tied to economic incentives that favor science, technology, engineering, and math (401). Choo argues that debates over the value of literature provide a chance to “reenvision the teaching of English literature” to highlight its power to offset tensions created by globalization (401).

Choo finds the state of English-language literature instruction in Singapore instructive because of the city’s colonial history and its implementation, beginning in the late 1980s, of a “national literature curriculum” (403) leading to national examinations on prescribed literary texts and practices. Examining the place of literature education as a part of Singapore’s response to globalization alongside classroom practices that may counter these top-level policies provides what Choo, following F. Vavrus and L. Bartlett, describes as a “multilevel vertical case study analysis” (405). Such an analysis, in Choo’s view, allows researchers to “contextualiz[e] local school practices within pressures occurring at the national levels, as these are in turn influenced by global forces” (405).

Choo and colleagues examined 1,593 questions from the national literature exam, coding them according to “question type” and “question content.” Types included questions addressing “plot, character, setting and atmosphere, style, and theme” (406). The researchers considered three levels of content: whether the questions measured “interpretation”; “aesthetic analysis”; or

students’ capacity to evaluate the text’s stylistic representation of others and the ideological values it contains, as well as their capacity to connect the text to the real world in order to engage with its ethical concerns (ethical evaluation and engagement). 406

Choo’s study, over a six-month period, gathered data from “six to eight classroom observations” and “one-hour pre- and post-observation interviews” (406). Four teachers from two “integrated program schools” participated. These schools were “high-performing,” with populations composed of “the top 20%” of scorers on a high-stakes exam (407). Teachers in such schools, Choo contends, have more freedom to design the kinds of assignments that serve needs other than those dictated by national economic interests (407).

To examine the national literature curriculum, Choo advocates for a “cosmopolitan” ethos, but distinguishes between two kinds of cosmopolitanism. Strategic cosmopolitanism focuses on the economic gains associated with global connectedness and the creation of a “skilled labor force” (408) and is “nation-centric,” concerned above all with a state’s competitiveness in global markets (402). In such a view, education is seen as an economic “investment” (403). In contrast, ethical cosmopolitanism promotes a sense of relatedness among diverse peoples and is “other-centric,” valuing the well-being of all as world citizens (403).

Central to the ethical cosmopolitanism that Choo supports is the development of what Jacques Derrida called a “hospitable imagination,” which enables “openness to others without conditions” (404). Choo argues that the study of literature can encourage this ability to see through the “lens of others” (405).

She reports that an interest in English education arrived with the desire of the colonial government to inculcate British cultural values in Singapore’s citizens (407). After independence in 1965, literature was devalued in favor of English-language education, which was seen as a necessary tool in Singapore’s efforts to depict itself as a player in the global economy (407-08). By the 1980s, however, the “creative industries” began to be seen as important in Singapore’s economy, and teaching “aesthetic sensitivity” became a means of ensuring both cultural and symbolic capital, as students were required to demonstrate both the ability to discern aesthetic value and a familiarity with the canonical texts of Western culture (408-09).

Literature education in this climate focused increasingly on detailed studies of the style of certain prescribed texts and authors like Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. National exam questions dealing with students’ ethical engagement with texts disappeared in favor of “[p]assage-based questions” that required students to show their knowledge of the texts (409). In Choo’s view, this pedagogy is “grounded on New Criticism’s adherence to an isolationist approach . . . in which students remain in the lifeworld of the plot, character, and language of the fictional text” (411).

Curricula designed by the four teachers disrupted this isolationist approach by

  • having students read a canonical text like Animal Farm alongside a modern text like N. H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul, which depicts the life of Afghan asylum seekers in the post-9/11 United States. This comparison foregrounds how Animal Farm can be linked to issues of “discrimination and bias” (“Tanya,” qtd. in Choo 412).
  • disrupting views of culture as fixed to ethnicity, history, or place by assigning authors like Amy Tan and Jamaica Kincaid, who write about their experiences with cultural “displacement, clashes, and mixing” (413). This curriculum encourages students to examine ties to local communities while opening themselves to “affinity with multiple others” with whom aspects of a fluid cultural identity may be shared (413).
  • challenging stereotypes by having students read the required text, Frankenstein, alongside a short story, “The Moon above His Head,” by Yann Martel, which raises questions, both textually and extra-textually, about how representation, for example in media, affects perceptions of others (415). This approach opens discussion about how others can be ethically depicted and how students’ own perceptions develop by “the continual destabilizing of fixed interpretations of the other” (417).

In Choo’s view, these teachers’ work in supplementing required training in aesthetic appreciation with ethically rich literary exploration demonstrates that “literature education powerfully mediates encounters with foreign, exiled, and alienated others” to “propel an appreciation of collective humanity” (418). This appreciation, she argues, can counter the instrumental force of strategic cosmopolitanism and is uniquely available through the literature classroom.


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

One thought on “Choo, Suzanne S. Cosmopolitan Literature Education in Singapore. RTE, May 2016. Posted 08/31/2016.

  1. Pingback: TWO NEW POSTS AT COLLEGE COMPOSITION WEEKLY ! | Virginia S. Anderson

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