Specialist Dental Group has launched an on-going series of blog posts by our individual dental specialists. All views provided are the dentist’s own opinions and are posted on this blog as part of our on-going efforts to educate the public about dental issues and other matters of interest relating to dentistry and healthcare.

I used to read a lot when I was young. I would devour books, any book including the literary classics, upcoming local writers, Asian writers, encyclopedias, etc.

Then life got busier, and books took a back seat, but I never forgot my old “friends”. In recent years, I have introduced them to my son. I was pleased to note that some of these perennial favourites appeared on the reading list issued by his teacher.

So I was greatly surprised when I read in the Straits Times that the number of secondary school students who take Literature as an ‘O’ Level subject has fallen drastically. The dismal number recorded recently was about 3000 students a year, compared to more than 16,000 students taking the subject each year in the early 1990s. Some of the reasons given for forsaking this subject were: the difficulty in scoring As (hence pulling down the overall grade of the individual student and the school as a whole). Another lame excuse was that Literature doesn’t provide any “solid foundation”, unlike subjects that lead to more “professional degrees” like Geography and the Sciences.

What has happened to learning as an experience in itself, not necessarily as a means to an end? Where is the enjoyment that comes from understanding the depths of the author’s soul what one finally reaches the point of enlightenment in the novel?

I remember Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, T. S. Elliot, Louisa May Alcott and R. L Stevenson. There was much to be gleaned from their individual styles. Then there were Pearl S. Buck, Han Su-Yin, Ho Min Fong and Catherine Lim, all wonderful writers too. Why aren’t their books readily available in the bookshops now? Why are the shelves filled instead with “Horror” and “Fantasy fiction” instead? There are even Literature teachers who lament that they can’t pass on their love for the subject because some schools have too few students opting for the subject , making a Literature class non-viable.

When I was in secondary school at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, studying Literature was never an “option”. Everybody studied the subject, even us “triple Science” students, many of whom hoped to become doctors. We were blessed with excellent teachers; there was never a dull moment in class. It wasn’t a chore to memorise passages from Shakespeare. In fact, I “acted out” the scenes at home and imagined all the drama taking place around me. In the end, I scored a distinction in the ‘O’ Level Literature paper.

So does Literature a great dentist make? Who knows? I’m sure those early years imbibing the thoughts of great authors have opened my mind in ways untold. Do I engage my patients better because there might be an untold understanding between us? Maybe….. Can I stand up in front of an audience and give a lecture in my professional capacity? Definitely! A dentist is not just a person who drills and fills teeth. The dentist needs to have empathy for the patient. Thoughts and feelings count too when coming up with treatment plans. So the next big question is: will I want my sons to study Literature in future? That’s an emphatic YES! Hopefully, it will make them better men.

Dr Helena Lee is a Periodontist with Specialist Dental Group. She holds an appointment as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Preventive Dentistry, National University of Singapore. She has co-authored several papers in peer-reviewed journals and has lectured at professional local and international conferences. Dr Lee has a special interest in the treatment and prevention of periodontal disease, gingival plastic surgery, soft and hard tissue grafting and dental implants. For more information on Dr Lee, click here

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