Shakespeare in schools - to be or not to be?

Last updated 08:36 05/10/2012

One of the most disturbing pieces of information that came to light last weekend was this piece about Shakespeare teaching (or the potential lack of) in high schools.

According to proposed changes, a level three NCEA English component that asks students to respond critically to a piece of Shakespearean drama will expire this year and not be replaced, due to unpopularity.

The news story goes on to say that "it was revealed NCEA students were getting top grades in English by writing about Twilight". Wow.

Now, I'm no literary snob. I've banged on enough already on this blog about how reading is reading is reading. As long as people are reading something, I personally don't care if their favourite book is Fifty Shades or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

But there's a vast difference between an adult who can make well-informed, presumably well-educated decisions, and a kid who hasn't even been taught the basics.

Look, I can see why most schoolchildren might find Shakespeare tedious. Romeo and Juliet

Imagine being your average 14-year-old, trying to discreetly text on your iPhone while some grey-haired teacher twaddles on about a bard who's been dead for hundreds of years and who writes using language that's about as far away from txt-speak as you can get. I mean, it's like they're like, trying to actually make you learn something. In school. Oh, the lolz.

Isn't that the point though? Education isn't supposed to be fun - at least, not all the time. Anyone who doesn't believe that should watch the 2009 British film An Education, based on the book by the same name. The best line in the film is when the pretty, book-smart but naive schoolgirl receives counsel from her headmistress, who tries to persuade her not to drop out to marry a charming, much older conman.

Her reply? "Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So what you're telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again, but this time for the rest of my life? My choice is to do something hard and boring, or to marry my...Jew and go to Paris and Rome and listen to jazz, and read, and eat good food in nice restaurants, and have fun! It's not enough to educate us anymore, Ms Walters. You've got to tell us why we're doing it."

I suppose that's the crucial question. Why a good literary education? Why should students learn something hard and boring like Shakespeare and be forced to write essays on it, rather than something they're already interested in, like Twilight? What relevance does any of it have to life?

My answer is: everything. There are books that are just there to entertain and that's fine, but then there's literature. Literature is the stuff that transforms. It is groundbreaking and provokes thought beyond the page. Literature is the basis for any popular piece of fiction. Twilight would not exist without Bram Stoker's Dracula, which in turn was based upon a collection of Transylvanian folklore by a little-known 19h century author called Emily Gerard.

The students who are getting As writing about Twilight (and I'm happy to be proven wrong), probably haven't been taught any of this. 

Writers write to make sense of the world - you can glean an awful lot about history, the human condition and people in general from fiction. I had awesome English teachers all through high school, and remember being allowed to make up my own 6th form reading list - which I promptly filled with books I'd always intended to read, like The Grapes of Wrath and Catcher in the Rye. Presumably that's why my teacher trusted me to choose my own books.

The thing is, I think you've got to be brave enough to be unpopular. To say: yes, read Twilight all that you want...at home, in your own time. But for today, let's look at Romeo and Juliet. Yes, it's hard and boring - but as you'll learn the older that you get, anything worth having in life always has its hard and boring moments.

You have to decide then if you're willing to work through it, or walk away, and that's the sort of thing an education in literature should help prepare you for. Because life isn't all science and mathematics; literature is the stuff that makes up culture and society as we know it. Without art and books, life is essentially meaningless.

To get really good at something, you have to be prepared for it to be hard and boring initially. The real pleasure comes from that moment of illumination, when everything falls into place in your head and you suddenly just get it. That's what makes learning literature worthwhile.

Do you think schools should keep including Shakespeare in their English curriculum? Why?

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