Thursday, July 17, 2008

Do UK Schools Come To Praise Shakespeare, Or To Bury Him..?

But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
__Othello, Act 3, Scene 3

Maybe it's a sign of how hard it is today to sustain our faith for a better Europe, but when I hear of government bodies called the "Department for Children" deciding to "improve" the approach to the teaching of Shakespeare in British schools, I immediately think the worst.

Especially when I hear affirmations of "engaging the texts" in order to place them within a "wider cultural context":

Shakespeare will be ditched from secondary school tests under plans being considered by ministers, it emerged yesterday.

Teenagers would no longer sit formal tests on the country's most renowned playwright under a shake-up of English Sats for 14-year-olds.

They would instead be assessed by their teachers on their understanding of the plays after performing them and studying their 'wider cultural context'.
The Department for Children said it had not yet taken firm decisions on the direction of Shakespeare assessment for 14-year-olds.
New-style Sats tests being trialled in 400 schools with a view to nationwide introduction from 2010 do not include a Shakespeare section. Instead, the Government has produced new materials to help teachers assess pupils' understanding of the Bard without the use of tests.

'These tasks, which are currently under development, will encourage lively and active approaches to Shakespeare that engage with the text as something to be performed; involve the study of the whole play; and consider Shakespeare in a wider cultural and literary context,' a spokesman said. ...

So far, on the surface, this sounds ominous and dreadful, easily conjuring up images of students being turned off of Shakespeare, thinking his work might be less than it really is. Yet: like so much else in life, it’s a matter of principle, not rule; not merely **what** something is, but **how it is** what it is. What if, for once, the proposed new approach was a first step towards something better, rather than one more step towards something worse.

I put myself in the position of the parents whose children attend these schools, and I wonder what I would accept as a tipping point, where exposing them to Shakespeare in school, in the manner that it’s being done, might actually be the greater, not the lesser, of evils. If the current approach is so counter-productive that it destroys the student’s appreciation for the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, maybe this work should be released from the little boxes that bureaucrats would encase it within, in order to try out some new approaches, taking better advantage of new technologies, to see what might result. I suspect, from anecdotal evidence, we have little to lose in the experiment...

By coincidence, I recently had a talk with a young lady at work who’s fresh from high school, and she rolled her eyes at the recounting of the stupidity that surrounded her school’s approach to teaching literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular. Her school's "official" approach resulted in killing her whole interest in reading itself, to the point where she views reading novels, poems and plays as a waste of time. And frankly, I don’t blame her, she was a good student of the lessons she was really being taught by the way in which this material was presented to her; I would feel no different, if that was all that I had seen of the world of letters. Sad to say, but I wonder if she would probably be better off being illiterate, so that she would still have her sense of wonder about what she was missing when she would come upon a closed book. Instead, the way in which the material was presented to her produced an alliterate: someone who can read, but chooses not to do so, deciding from her previous school experience that there is nothing to be gained by reading books. A mind closed to opening closed books.

To my frustration my young co-worker learned her lesson so well that I haven’t yet found the words to convince her to think a second time about her current conclusion; I’ve tried to come up with many a metaphor to describe what she’s missing, just to shift her belief first, then her knowledge second, but nothing has yet broken through. Of course, I could just shrug my shoulders and say, well it’s not my problem, thank goodness, I’m not her parents… but there seems to be something so deeply sinful about robbing someone of a love of reading, that I want to keep trying.
(Without becoming counter-productive in my own right, and cement her within her current disinterest about reading!)

She likely needs almost as many years out of school, as she spent in school, to undo the damage that was done... So when I hear that abandoning "official" tests would result in the following as a substitute, I find myself somewhat encouraged. Back to the Daily Mail account:
But teachers continue to claim they have led to pupils studying scenes in isolation and tackling 'laughable' questions sometimes unrelated to the plays, and are certain to welcome the proposed changes.
The Department for Children said pupils would still have to study two Shakespeare plays at secondary school.
'The teacher-assessed tasks that will be trialled from September will provide assessable written outcomes, with the option to supplement this with oral evidence,' he said.
'The tasks are still under development and their future has not been decided.
'We are simply exploring new, innovative and exciting ways of teaching and assessing Shakespeare.'
Under the Government's Shakespeare strategy, the Bard will be taught to children as young as six thanks to new teaching packs being sent to primary schools which include abridged film versions of his plays.
Children will begin preparatory studies in nursery classes.
More children will be taken on theatre visits and schools will be encouraged to stage Shakespeare productions.
If a student was to study Shakespeare's plays by a combination of actually watching them being performed and by reading the actual plays, rather than by simply reading about them, maybe the power of the plays themselves can be entrusted to do more of their own teaching, touching young minds and lighting new flames in a new generation... maybe trusting the work more, trusting the school system less, might be the lesser of evils and result in students teaching themselves why we regard William Shakespeare so highly.


Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.

__Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 3

[Hat tip to Eowyn at Shooting Star for this story]


Eowyn said...

Ugh ... I can't get over this one.

Somehow it reminds me of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Can't remember whether it was Dagny Taggart or Cheryl Taggart, her sister-in-law, who observed that the enemy of reason was less a slavering beast than a soft emanation of goo -- or words to that effect. And, therefore, all the more terrifying.

Still, I believe Shakespeare was divinely inspired. I believe each and every word was meant to be absorbed in the same spirit as the Bible. There is too much truth there for it not to be so.

And I believe truth will out.

But, in moments of weakness, this stuff eats in and festers. "Beware the green-eyed monster, that doth mock the meat it feeds upon," I guess *wry smile*

Findalis said...

It is the first sign that the multiculturists and Muslims have taken over when literacy rates drop.

I am reminded of another quote by dear Bill Shakespeare:

Oh what fools ye mortals be.

Dag said...

There is so much to get from life if one cares at all. Even my cat is a fan. I yelled at her recently for peeing on the floor:

"Out, out damned Spot."

She must know her Shakespeare. She took off in a hurry.

Charles Henry said...

Eowyn, I don't know if you might also be a fellow fan of Hugh Hewitt's radio show, but there's a delightful Shakespeare expert named David Allen White that he brings on once a month. If you scroll through the TownHall archives of his show you can find them and podcast them. (no commercials, so you can listen to an hour program in 35 minutes..)

Once David Allen White was asked about Shakespeare possibly working on the King James Bible translation, since his fame as a playwright coincided in time with the famous literary undertaking... there's no proof that he participated, but White had a tantalizing hint that it might have happened.

Eowyn said...

This topic seems to have brought out the Shakespeare appreciation in all of us -- good one, Findalis!

dag -- ROFL!

Charles Henry -- intriguing, for sure. I'll have to look into that a bit. As for Hugh Hewitt, I've always been a fan -- thanks for the tip.