The reason why Literature as a school subject is in trouble is because we don't know what we want from it. By 'trouble', I mean that it is declining in take-up by students who are favouring the more 'practical' subjects like the sciences and math. All the hand-wringing that been going on in recent weeks is nothing new -- lit has been in decline for a long time now.
The issue isn't really about whether to keep it on as a subject or phase it out. No one is actively campaigning to eradicate it from the syllabus; a number of vocal supporters are rallying support for it; some are lamenting how pragmatic our society's become; but most are silently indifferent and will neither be sorry nor surprised if it dies a natural death.
I belong to the vocally indifferent camp. We love good books, but the link between the enjoyment of reading and having to take an exam about it is problematic. Both are diametrically opposite activities. Old man story follows:
Way back when I was a green trainee with a class of my own, I had to give a lit test. My objective was to see what creative things the kids could do with the poems they were reading. I designed a test to assess their interpretation of the text through a choreographed or dramatized group movement, i.e., a dramatic reading of the poem of their choice. I even designed a rubric so I could grade the performance with a clear conscience.
As much as the kids were astonished by my test design and rubric which I briefed them on beforehand, they astounded me with their interpretative performances. Working together, not only did they show they understood their poems, they showed that they were able to translate text into visuals, and visuals to aesthetic movement -- and they did it all on their own. I didn't teach them to do anything that they did, I just said, 'GO!', sat back and marvelled.
A couple of days later, I returned to the classroom with a heavy heart and a text-based re-test. Since the kids were sitting for a written exam at the end of the year, my mentors insisted that I give them a written test now. I guess they wanted to see how effectively the kids had memorized their Coles' Notes or whatever else they were studying. I never knew how the kids did on the re-test but I'd like to think that the rescinded test helped them some.
The lit exam is a very different animal from the simple activity of text reading. Despite the fluidity of subject matter, there's nothing whimsical about how questions are to be answered, or subjective in the way the answers are graded. The exam is purely mechanical in its emphasis on critical analysis, and that it rewards logic and structure -- just like the other kind of argumentative academic study. The questions require a scientific hypothesis and a mathematically logical approach to developing a reasoned conclusion.
Lit is a subject that bundles more content than its packaging can possibly hold. It's the elephant all of us blind men are feeling a different aspect of. Yes, it is creative, humanistic, historical, expressive, and everything else a lit buff identifies as good for the growing child; but it is also as practical as it gets, training the same child to think and appreciate current realities while developing a critical mind and an personal voice to match.
The problem is, people don't see how two contradictory objectives can co-exist in the same subject. Me, I enjoyed the books I read and most of the lit classes I attended. And I aced every test and exam I took beyond Sec 2. AND I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one to be able to say that.
I don't believe anyone wants lit to die (apart from those poor sods who only know lit through memorizing notes), but if it is to have a renewed viability, the people setting the syllabus and the people setting the exams will have to start talking to each other once again to figure out how to market the best of both worlds and ditch the public opinion of lit stemming from the worst; while making it relevant to a generation of twits*.
*by which I mean people who tweet. On Twitter. Rather than like some old pedagogue ponderously pontificating on Blogger.