Shakespeare in twilight of academia

Last updated 09:07 08/09/2012

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Twilight and The Hunger Games are flavour of the month, while Shakespeare is out in the cold. CHARLEY MANN looks at what is being read in New Zealand schools. 

Shakespeare will be expelled from NCEA exams at the end of the year and won't be back any time soon.

Instead, pupils are critically examining Twilight and The Hunger Games series.

Academics are becoming increasingly concerned that the high school curriculum has been dumbed down for a generation that demands instant gratification from books.

Meanwhile, the Government has made one "small" financial contribution to the country's largest high school Shakespeare theatrical competition in the past 21 years.

In fact, the Bard has never played a compulsory part in the New Zealand curriculum.

The Ministry of Education said the coming changes "remove a specific optional question on a Shakespeare play at English level 3 NCEA [National Certificate of Educational Achievement]".

"Writing an essay about a Shakespeare play will no longer be the sole assessment outcome for teachers and students," it said.

However, "students can still study and be examined on Shakespeare".

It now comes down to the call of individual teachers.

So is this the winter of our discontent?

The chief executive and founder of Shakespeare's Globe Centre New Zealand, Dawn Sanders, certainly thinks so.

She has been battling for government funding for her drama programmes for more than two decades.

The centre received a government grant in 2005 but has been unsuccessful in efforts since.

"Even then it was only a small contribution," she said.

"It beggars belief."

Sanders is shocked at the change to NCEA exams and the decline of great literary masters in the classroom.

"They [the Government] say it is irrelevant; it is unconscionable.

"It is demeaning to young people who like and even relish getting their teeth into this," she said.

To not teach Shakespeare "is depriving pupils of really core vocabulary".

"They are in a society where they are in a temporary, transient stage with Facebook and text speak," she said.

Many of the most common words and phrases used today were coined by Shakespeare.

In fact, the language that scares off so many is surprisingly easy to master.

"It is filled with sexual innuendo," Sanders said.

"I have been involved in education since the 1970s, and more and more there is an absolute breakdown of taboos.

"Today, people can make sexual innuendo without being seen as excessively crude, rude and vulgar.

"We've gone back more to Shakespeare; his words resonate more today."

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Shirley Boys' High School principal John Laurenson, a self- professed "prolific reader", also laments the easy literature in today's classrooms.

"Schools have a duty to put literature in front of children to extend them, not just to please them," he said.

"Breezing through a Harry Potter-type novel doesn't demand much from you."

Shirley, like most high schools, streams pupils according to their ability in English literature.

Top-tier pupils, whose reading age exceeds their chronological age, are exposed to Shakespeare, among other masters.

One top-tier class is working its way through Aldous Huxley's 1931 novel, Brave New World.

In 1999, it was ranked fifth out of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library.

However, Laurenson concedes "literacy levels can get quite simple" as you drop down the tiers.

"It comes down to the level of ability.

"Shakespeare is still taught to the higher levels," he said.

"Twilight and The Hunger Games come in at the middle echelons ."

A pupil is deemed middle of the road when their reading and chronological age match.

Laurenson said some blame should be laid on modern expectations of "the credit card" generation.

"Remember we live in a society where instant gratification is necessary," he said.

Pupils shied away from the eloquent language of the masters, preferring the "battlefield" communication of texting and Facebook.

"I'm not a fan of the fact that grammar is less important than it used to be and I am not a fan of text abbreviations," he said. "It's what I call battlefield language."

Canterbury University associate professor of English literature Paul Millar's son attends Shirley.

He is pleased with the level of "stimulation and challenge" the Shirley curriculum gives his son.

Although, Laurenson revealed, Millar Jr is one of the school's brightest lights. He is, of course, in the highest tier.

Millar is not as disheartened as some with the decline of Shakespeare in the classroom.

Indeed, the Bard is thriving at Canterbury University.

"Students still love Shakespeare. It is the one course where we are guaranteed to get big numbers," he said.

"Where we are dying is in the teaching of New Zealand literature.

"New Zealand students don't want to study New Zealand literature."

Shakespeare may have retained his allure among university students but other masters have fallen by the wayside.

Canterbury no longer teaches medieval English literature or Byron, one of the greatest Romantic poets.

The Middle Ages gave us Geoffrey Chaucer and his epic and often salacious work, The Canterbury Tales, credited with the birth of the English we speak today.

Millar said the courses offered came down to funding and the specialties of lecturers, few of whom read medieval English.

"There are only so many people we can appoint to teach."

Millar believes that there is a place for popular comfort books - as a way of introducing critical reading.

"The key is to get people reading and get them reading critically," he said.

"You don't expect a kid to start playing rugby and join the All Blacks straight away. It is the same with the greats of literature.

"In the time I've been lecturing I have not found the standard of students has changed markedly.

"I've noticed a change in interest but, having said that, cream always rises to the top."

Canterbury University secondary curriculum and learning facilitator Trish Holden agrees that comfort books "provide scope to develop students' critical thinking skills".

"Our classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, and teachers endeavour to provide a mix of mirror and window texts," she said.

"Teachers are increasingly offering choices to students so that they can be engaged and challenged in their reading.

"We all know that it is not the text in itself that provides the learning experience but the teaching that sits around it.

"It is not just the level of the text that determines the level of thinking."

The Hunger Games may well introduce pupils to ethical and moral issues.

But, Sanders said, after all, "there is nothing quite like mastering a master".

- © Fairfax NZ News

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