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