With few pupils in the classroom engaging with the source texts and showing little interest in the works of William Shakespeare, is it really important for him to have an active role in our classrooms? Whether it be in Drama or an English Literature lesson students dissect, analyse and interpret his plays and poetic works in order to explore the evolution of English Literature.
“There are a number of newer authors and texts that better communicate to the needs of a more ethnically diverse, and increasingly curious, modern-day student.”
Despite being seen as a core figure of the Western canon and a spearhead in the creation of aspects of the English vocabulary and lexicon, there are some people out there who believe it is time we lay him to rest for good. One of those people is veteran high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, who wrote a piece for the New York Times back in 2015 claiming that students should no longer suffer.
Dusbiber’s main argument is that there are a number of newer authors and texts that in themselves better communicate to the needs of a more ethnically diverse, and increasingly curious, modern-day student. That these works may in fact share themes and narrative correlations to Shakespeare’s writing is, within itself, a testament to William Shakespeare’s cultural legacy.
Mark Bayer, an associate professor and chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas in San Antonio, claims that there are two reasons to the Bard’s longevity. According to Bayer, ‘one [argument] is intrinsic to the plays’ universal appeal. But also, one could plausibly argue Shakespeare has been manufactured into what he is today through popular culture’. The other factor that he states explains the cultural capital, saying that ‘[a] certain amount of Shakespeare’s notoriety is predicated on hype.’ We study the works of Shakespeare because we have been told they are worthwhile pieces of literature; we are informed of the literary canon and the cultural worth of these texts through social conditioning.
“People often see the canon as a form of snobbery and a depiction of high class – due to the education level needed to ‘deconstruct’ the stories.”
We can see several times when our social conditioning of literature has been negatively influenced. Russian Revolutionary novels such as Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons, are supposedly tomes for ‘intellectuals’ and are often portrayed as ‘high brow’ literature – in truth they have very simplistic plots. However, we may find that as people living in Westernised, capitalist societies, we potentially lack social context for these narratives.
The use of literary canons has been raised time and again as a hindrance rather than a positive. People often see the canon as a form of snobbery and a depiction of high class – due to the education level needed to ‘deconstruct’ the stories. But we know that Shakespeare was enjoyed by the masses in the Elizabethan, and later the Jacobean, era so his work is obviously supposed to speak a language everyone can understand.
Recent educational changes to the English GCSE and A Level curriculum have seen modern American texts such as Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed, supposedly focusing solely on English Literature and moving away from American Literature. This has opened up a space for a different type of reading, with some centres studying books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon or Anita and Me by Meera Syal, with some examination boards pushing to avoiding Victorian literature as well.
Shakespeare’s cultural significance in England cannot be denied. When teaching, his input to the literary world should be acknowledged and the class should move on to see how his ideas and contributions to the writer’s arsenal have been adapted and used in a range of settings. Schools should not be severing ties from the writings of the past and the present; students should understand the natural evolution pf literature through landmark texts.
Throughout my undergraduate course of Creative Writing and Film Studies, Shakespeare actually did not come up that often. Even now in post-graduate studies, he is not a name that echoes through every lecture or seminar – it may simply be that it is deemed ‘covered’ by secondary school or sixth form colleges and therefore does not need to reappear unless necessary.
“Studies like this prove that maybe examination boards and the government…should widen the net on the sort of texts and materials that children are exposed to”
In 2013, a survey called the What Kids Are Reading report published its findings on the reading targets and reading age levels of primary and secondary school children in the United Kingdom. The results of 300,144 children nationwide were concerning, with children aged 11+ not being challenged enough with the types of reading they did. “The average book difficulty rises as pupils get older, but not in proportion to the rate at which the pupils should be improving in reading,” says the report. “After year six the book difficulty level flatlines to below the actual age of the pupils, which is alarming … It appears that there is something seriously amiss with the way secondary schools encourage young people to read. If the older readers challenged themselves more, better reading outcomes could be anticipated.”
In an interview with The Guardian, the author of the report, Professor Keith Topping (from the University of Dundee), explained that; “This is a particular problem at secondary level,” before going on to say that, “We know that reading ability is highly correlated with academic achievement. So if children are reading books that are too easy, this is not only affecting their reading, but also all of their intellectual development – they will not be encountering more difficult and complex concepts; ie not thinking better.”
There does seem to be a lack of guidance in what children read during their time at school. The exam boards force-feeding classics is not the be all and end all, and fetish of the literary canon as an unassailable, impossible to criticise monolith of cultural worth does not help at all.
Schools are struggling to promote reading as a fun thing to do recreationally, however studies have found that around 32% of adults find reading boring as they grow older. Professor Keith Topping also explores the role of parents in encouraging their children to read as well as “engage in more discussions with children about what they are reading, seeking to follow children’s enthusiasms but ensure that the book is at a high enough level of difficulty to challenge the reader”.
Studies like this prove that maybe examination boards and the government, with the help of teachers who are interacting with students and pupils, should widen the net on the sort of texts and materials that children are exposed to while studying English Literature. Perhaps as well, the key to engaging children in secondary schools to read more is to allow them to study books that are not so distant from them as modern readers.
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