A slice-of-life question doesn’t make the cut

December 14, 2017 - 09:13

A school in Phú Thọ Province last week asked its 10th graders a question in their first semester literature exam that has bemused me, though I was done with high school almost a decade ago.

A new poster of Chi Pu. — Photo zing.vn

Bảo Hoa

A school in Phú Thọ Province last week asked its 10th graders a question in their first semester literature exam that has bemused me, though I was done with high school almost a decade ago.

Evoking an internet celebrity called Chi Pu, the Hạ Hòa High School asked its students put themselves in her shoes and write an expressive essay.

“Imagine you are Chi Pu and write an essay, using expressive elements, to describe a day after the release of your music video Từ hôm nay (Feel like Ooh),” the instruction said. It also provided some background information on Chi Pu and the none-too-favourable feedback her music video attracted from some famous singers.

Chi Pu, whose real name is Nguyễn Thùy Chi, rose to fame in 2009 after winning a beauty pageant and has been working in the showbiz industry as an actress, model, and TV producer. On October 10, to mark the 10th year anniversary of her career, she released a music video called Từ hôm nay (Feel like Ooh) and subtly announced an impending foray into the music industry.

Unfortunately, her voice didn’t cut it. Many experienced, award-winning local and international singers said she “couldn’t sing”, and she was bombarded with negative feedback from the audience as well.

It is unthinkable that less than 10 years ago, a 10th grader like me would encounter a showbiz-centered question in my exams. I wondered where the literature teachers were going with this question, and why they chose such a controversial figure.

Speaking to Zing.vn, school principal Nguyễn Tiến Đường, said that the question was written by a group assigned with the task, and selected for the exam after thorough consideration. It aims to provide students with a hypothetical experience from which they can express empathy with those in unfavourable circumstances, a group representative said.

There is no denying that everyday life, including that of celebrities, are grist for writers, and therefore, such questions can carry some literary merit, but Dr. Phạm Hữu Cường, who has years of experience in preparing papers for college literature exams in Hà Nội, sees it differently.

He said such questions bear little educational value, although it engages students’ imagination and gives them the opportunity to express their own thoughts.

“Controversy in the entertainment industry is not something that teenage students should care about,” he told the Dân trí online newspaper. “Getting students to talk about hassles between entertainers can have negative effects on them.”

Another academic, Trịnh Thu Tuyết told me that exam questions, even those using real-life examples, should not overlook standard pedagogical environment.

“It has always been educators’ pedagogical responsibility to lead students towards appreciation for aesthetics and good morals,” she said.   

“The ultimate goal of education is directing students towards honesty, compassion and aesthetics, and no study material should harm such a goal,” she said.

Some students seemed to shrug off such concerns.

A 10th grader from the very Hạ Hòa High School said the question was practical and something that her age-group could relate to.

“We all know about Chi Pu,” she told Zing.vn. “We could write whatever we want without having to cling to textbooks.”

Writing from the singer’s perspective would help students understand her feelings on being insulted, from which they will learn how to behave on social media, the wise girl said.

Good intention, bad approach

There can be no argument that it is good to get students to discuss real-life issues, but it bugs me that teachers assumed that every 10th grader would be familiar with the public figure that they chose.

Quỳnh Anh, a 10th grader at Tây Hồ high school in Hà Nội, told me that she finds the question unrelated to what she learns in class.

“I wouldn’t know what to write about,” she said. She did not care about Chi Pu’s ordeals, and had never watched any of her entertainment products. Thankfully, I believe that there are more 10th graders like Quỳnh Anh, who never read tabloids, kids who are not interested in the celebrity world. For such students, this question would not be fair, unless they are mature enough to criticise the whole celebrity culture.

Now there’s a thought.

The Chi Pu question, to me, is not a problem per se, but isn’t the celebrity culture overdone, and shallow, as it is? In the name of being practical and down to earth, does our education have to aim at lower denominators, a sort of dumbing down, or should it do the opposite, something good literature is well equipped to do?

Academic education by itself might not help students solve all issues in life, but at the very least, it should set higher standards that all students can aspire to. — VNS