Should I Take H2 Literature?

by Jerrold Soh | Sep 21, 2015 | 7800 views

One of our users recently asked me for advice on his/her situation. I thought it would be helpful to share the correspondence. It is reproduced here with his/her permission and some minor edits.

The Question

I’m a J1 BCME student. I’m not doing that well. I’m considering if I should change subjects and if so whether I should (voluntarily or involuntarily) retain one year to do that. I want to switch to a hybrid combination: maybe switching to H1 Math, removing Econs, and taking H2 E. Lit.

Would it be advisable for someone who has absolutely zero experience in English literature to take H2 E. Lit? I had wanted to take it (as part of combined humanities) at the 'O' levels, but the principal of my school then just didn't believe in the value of it; they didn't want to open a class.

For context, I wouldn’t say I’m gifted in the languages, having gotten a B3 for English at the 'O' levels. But I do know I like English as a subject. It's something I have liked studying since young, and I do take pride in it and see it as one of my stronger fronts. I’m fine with reading books. I didn't say "love" because I guess it really depends on what I'm reading.

What worries me the greatest is that enjoying a good story is NOT the same as analyzing and picking it apart. Googling about H2 Literature intimidates me - the skill and immense quality expected of H2 English Literature candidates are things I fear I may not meet. Of the 6 poems you shared here, I could only get 2 of them (poems no. 2 and 4). My understanding of the rest is entirely partial... and messy.  :'(

I guess it is that thing about there not being fixed answers in Literature - not necessarily a bad thing at all, I agree, but I'm always worried my answers may not be good enough. Is Literature really that much of a subject where "you either have it or you don't"?

Given the above, the bell curve for literature is probably very steep as only those who are confident in it take it. And the Humanities Scholars are required to take it as well.  Literature can seem so simple as a subject yet so daunting. What if I get 'writer's block'? What if I simply can't "see the light"?

There are few people I can approach in school about this and Google hasn't been the most helpful. Given what you (now) know of my situation, what would you advise me to do?


PTC (not his/her actual initials)

My Response


I think you should not take H2 literature. Here's why:

Even though I strongly believe that everyone should learn literature, learning literature is not the same as taking H2 literature in school.

To be very honest, JC is just a way for you to get As. Anything that makes it difficult to get As should be seriously (re)considered. It does sound like H2 literature will not be easy for you. The concerns you raised are very valid. Analyzing a book is not the same as reading one. Everyone enjoys a good movie but few people can ever film a blockbuster.

Note that this says nothing about whether you are actually good in literature, nothing about whether you can compete with a bell curve of Humanities scholars. An O level grade is not much to draw conclusions from. It is more of how I suspect that you will not be blessed with the luxury of time, resources, and a conducive environment to study literature given your current situation.

I still think literature is easy once you get it. And it is not hard to get. But school connotes homework, exams, and other mundane requirements. People who are good at a subject don’t necessarily do well at them in school. This is especially so for literature because we are trying to force-fit a living, open-ended art into dead, close-ended modes of instruction and assessment.

Don’t get me wrong: exams are simply the pragmatic way to go. And literature is a lot more disciplined and methodical than most people give it credit for. It is just that exams are structural constraints dictated by the needs of industrialised schooling and ill-suited to encourage the pursuit of anything really meaningful.

If you really like literature the better way is to do subjects that are easier to score in, save time, and spend that extra time analyzing the books you like to read and learning true literature (few Singapore schools teach it).

Pragmatically speaking as well, it seems you are well into your J1 year, and unless you are really doing badly for all your other subjects, switching now is not a good idea.

Please don’t be disheartened. I hear that NUS FASS has a good literature course which you can always aim for (provided your A levels are good enough...).  Mark Twain, one of the best writers ever, said never to let your schooling interfere with your education. If I were you, I'd try my best to handle (read: do well in) school in the most efficient way so I have time to do things that matter.

Hope this helps.


Anyone have any thoughts on this? Am I right, or should PTC just take the plunge?

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