The Fault, Dear Brutus, is Not in Our Students

by | August 22, 2016

First, a confession: I’m a second year English student, but aged sixteen, I couldn’t stand Shakespeare.

I know, I know. It’s the kind of blasphemy which ignites witch-hunts and kicks academia into uproar. I’ll hasten to point out that I do like Shakespeare now. And my transformation in opinion wasn’t down to some chronic insecurity in my capacities as an English student when I didn’t get much further than an ‘uh, well…’ upon being asked whether I’d read any of his works at interview. (I believe I mumbled something along the lines of having watched a bit of that one Hamlet adaptation with David Tennant in it, which I assume got points for honesty and not many points for anything else.)

I think it was only by the time I got round to studying Shakespeare at A Level that I realised exactly how poor the GCSE provision for his work actually was. The study of Shakespeare under the current system has long ceased to acknowledge his texts’ worth beyond their appeal as signals of profound capabilities to follow a textbook and ‘summat to find out if they can write half-decent and that’. It’s a shame that schools often don’t acknowledge that, by sixteen, students might actually be developing an interest in the world around them. Trying to relate Shakespeare to the world that apparently exists in their private ‘youf’ circles doesn’t count, either. Gratefully, this is a connection which is much satirised nowadays: articles like this are most of what’s left of the valiant endeavours to make Shakespeare ‘cool’ which have been responsible for a country-wide epidemic of secondhand embarrassment throughout the years. No: funnily enough, students of sixteen are often actually becoming interested in the real world around them. It’s not that unexpected, really, given that by this stage they’re only two years off actually embarking into that world and its myriad challenges, and that includes negotiating a web of political rhetoric.

I, for one, am also quite tired of the popular notion that it’s a fault in the student if they don’t appreciate or enjoy what they’re being taught. The social dinosaurs espousing this view often seem to write alongside commentators who rumble on about young people’s disinterest in politics, but whether this complex disillusionment may have a more centralised cause is a question less frequently asked.

Shakespeare is perhaps the strongest proof we have of language’s ability to create affect; a far more liberating and powerful tool than various pure-STEM advocates give it credit for. Clearly, a nation without an understanding of the power of language to shape our perceptions of the world is a nation in which political rhetoric is rarely intelligently questioned. This is not in any way criticising the study of STEM subjects – that would be idiotic – given that STEM subjects are obviously crucial for the growth of public health services and minimizing the effects of climate change, things even the most ardent Shakespearean will admit just can’t be remedied by the long-departed bard. The issue is one of imbalance. A government that would bring about reforms strongly favouring STEM graduates above humanities graduates, particularly financially—an aim professed, unsurprisingly, in the UKIP manifesto for the 2015 general election—is a government which evidently believes only the wealthy elite should be able to take degrees which would qualify them for positions controlling the public forums (i.e. the media) through which political ideas are debated.

Literary elitism and classism is a concept already more deeply buried in the discourse surrounding Shakespeare than perhaps any other writer. Given that Shakespeare’s work was originally performed in a context that brought people from all different backgrounds into the same public space, this separatism now associated with his work is quite odd. The elitist cultural discourse surrounding Shakespeare has inflated to the extent that preconception now precludes actual conception. Therefore, the ability to learn to not just understand but to draw more interesting connections from complex rhetoric, mostly studied through Shakespeare’s work at GCSE, appears to be restricted to an elite sphere which most ordinary students cannot access. They are told that they find Shakespeare boring simply because they don’t understand him, when in reality, the way that Shakespeare is presented to them is often from a presupposition that they’re not going to find it interesting, and that this is merely a mandatory thing that they have to study simply because it is embedded in our educational system.

But, to take a central quotation from Gregory Doran’s 2016 Richard Dimbleby Lecture: ‘I often feel that [Shakespeare] speaks so directly to us today because his times echo ours’. Shakespeare should not merely be a means to see if students can untangle complex syntax and put the words where they reckon they’d usually go. His language, like fragments of jewels silted from sand, can reflect a thousand things when looked at under different lights. So many of Shakespeare’s plays echo what it is to live in an unstable world, which is, possibly above all others, a sentiment that transcends era, and class, and gender, and race. By teaching students from a presupposition of their abilities and by a checklist of what a ‘Shakespeare essay’ looks like, we are therefore losing the entire point of teaching Shakespeare in the first place. The entire point of teaching Shakespeare is to teach students the limitless nature of language; to empower them to feel confident to find in it what is personally interesting and beautiful to them; to learn to think about language as a structure in other circumstances and not merely accept the first interpretation they are given (crucial to a genuinely democratic society, needless to say.) Telling them what to think about his work and what to write in a highly prescriptive examination, therefore, just doesn’t do anyone a great deal of good.

How exactly could the education system facilitate these changes? For one thing, depth rather than breadth of study should become a priority; rather than studying the whole play equally, certain speeches could be given more weight, allowing the multiplicity of Shakespeare’s language to become the central focus. Exam questions should be centred on critical debates surrounding the play and its key speeches; marks should be awarded to students who have something original to say, and students should therefore be encouraged to try and think about the implications of the text against some outside source – a news article or a debate piece perhaps. Of course, the exam boards would need to change their systems around a bit for that to work, but that’s a whole different debate. More centralised assessment might be necessary to make sure that the marker is actually someone with the experience to recognise different approaches, as opposed to someone on a hunt for inane criteria with a sheet of fixed suppositions about what it all ‘means’.

I know some of these suggestions are perhaps a little idealistic. Not every kid is going to enjoy Shakespeare, in the same way that I might have glanced around my maths classroom a few years ago at the neatly boggling structures on the walls and simply shaken my head. That said, a method of teaching Shakespeare that encourages students to connect it to their own experiences and observations of the world around them both engages them in a form of debate about their ideas and lessens the social divides that they may believe separate them from his work, reminding students that their ideas are, also, important.

Given how commonly we, as a society, seem to complain that people ‘can’t think for themselves’, it’s bizarre that our educational system hasn’t come under greater scrutiny for this phenomenon. Instead of blankly avoiding the question, we should start telling students why they’re studying what they are. We need to encourage students’ curiosity about the system, because it is only by questioning the structures that already stand that advancement in those structures is made. Shakespeare, with the multitudinous meanings behind his words, should be a means by which we teach students to do that: encouraging them to question broader systems by challenging didactic interpretations of the work they’re being taught. In other words, his work should be a means of opening up debate, rather than closing it down.