“But some have raised eyebrows, questioning whether the levels of violence in the book, which features duels to the death between teenagers, makes for appropriate study material” (Teenage US Bestseller Scores As School Text, Amelia Teng).
Imagine the reaction of these concerned parents who have questioned the levels of violence in Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” – chosen by the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS) as a literature text for its secondary two students (ST, Feb. 22) – when they realise that William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” has been read in classes across the island, even when I was a secondary two student back in 2005. Raised eyebrows over duels to the death between teenagers in “The Hunger Games”? How about battle, torture, and death between schoolboys who have survived a plane crash on a remote island in the “Lord of the Flies”?
And what will they make of the other dystopian texts which could be used by some schools – Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” and George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” for instance – featuring scenes of violence or sexual intercourse? In fact the other text that these SCGS students will be reading, the William Shakespeare classic “The Merchant of Venice”, is no less controversial. There are longstanding controversies over the portrayal of the play’s antagonist Shylock, a Jewish usurer, with the perception of anti-Semitism and how the play might have been historically used to perpetuate stereotypes.
The underlying socio-political commentary notwithstanding, one could dispute the literary value of “The Hunger Games” vis-à-vis the classics. There are perhaps even more deserving contemporary books which feature equally meaningful themes. Yet dismissing the series because of the “gory descriptions of children killing children mercilessly to save themselves” underestimates the ability of young readers to reason, as well as the ability of teachers to suss out and communicate relevant themes. Every academic and educator came to same, reasonable conclusion that “it boils down to how the book is taught”.
Amidst the perceived brouhaha, wherein only one contrarian perspective was quoted, the broader intent of getting more students interested in the subject of Literature through more modern and accessible texts might have been overshadowed.
Slippery slope arguments that schools will now be encouraged to use any and all books – with some even raising E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” as a ludicrous example – hardly hold. SCGS, as with many schools which have chosen books which are not on the Ministry of Education list for the lower secondary level, has substantiated its selection adequately, and hopefully the texts will have more students enthused in the year ahead.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.