In a recent post, I suggested that we have two choices when we meet a student who has difficulty writing: We can accommodate this difficulty by giving the student an alternative way to express herself or we can address the difficulty directly by supporting her writing and maybe giving her more practice at writing than her peers. I am now starting to wonder whether this might also apply to the way that students feel about certain topics.
Let’s take the example of Shakespeare. Many students are likely to express distaste at the idea of studying Shakespeare and I would like to put forward four possible reasons for this.
1. The student genuinely does not like Shakespeare
Perhaps our student has seen a play or two, understood them and come to a decision that Shakespeare is not for him.
2. The student doesn’t like the idea of it
In this case, the student hasn’t studied Shakespeare but he knows that the plays were written in England a long time ago by a white guy and assumes that they have little to say of relevance to his life.
3. Initial experiences are demotivating
The student starts to study Shakespeare and finds the language hard. He assumes that he is going to continue finding the subject difficult, that this will make him feel bad and so decides that it is not worth the effort.
4. The disco effect
When I was a teenager, the local police used to run a disco every second Friday. By about Wednesday, the tickets were on sale at a nearby newsagents and there would be some discussion at school about who was going to go. Few people would say they were going. Yet if my friends and I bought a ticket and went along, we tended to find that lots of people from school were there. They might suggest that they had nothing else on or that a friend wanted to go so they came along reluctantly. It just wasn’t cool to be seen to want to go to a disco organised by the police.
If we try to introduce Shakespeare to students then any objections are likely to be because of reasons 2-4. By definition, if they haven’t studied it yet then they can’t genuinely dislike Shakespeare because they don’t really know what it is. Once they come to know the plays, they may decide that Shakespeare does have something relevant to say. With help from a teacher, they may move past their initial difficulties. As they realise that they can handle the language this might even become motivating. They may never broadcast their love of Shakespeare but they might quietly seek it out.
Of course, students may also study Shakespeare and decide that they genuinely don’t like it.
If we give students a choice or try to choose alternatives to Shakespeare that we think are more relevant to them then they will never find this out. Why does this matter? After all, isn’t point 2 valid? Why should we force a dead white male playwright on an ethnically diverse groups of inner city kids?
Fine. But if that is the case then we shouldn’t be surprised if the head of our national theatre company, our top serious actors, our professors of English literature and the leaders of many other arts-related professions come from privileged schools that still teach Shakespeare. Perhaps this reflects a world that has the wrong priorities. Perhaps an in-depth knowledge of an inner city playwright should be just as valid. Perhaps ignorance of Shakespeare should not matter. Alternatively, maybe Shakespeare has some unique qualities that set it apart and justify the fact that it is the kind of knowledge that is often implicitly assumed. I can’t answer that.
But we are left with this question: Do we prepare students for the world as we would like it to be or do we prepare them for the world as it actually is?