Don't let think-tanks exterminate the Bard

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Like Daleks coming through a wormhole from a nightmare planet where all behaviour is rigidly logical, the educational Gradgrinds keep appearing.

The latest to fire his "you will be practicalcareer-drivenassessed at all times" deathray gun at what seems an increasingly barren, theory and directive-zapped school landscape, is Professor Sig Prais.

His Dalek mothership is called the National Institute of Social and Economic Research. Maybe we need some kind of intellectual star wars programme to prevent these inhuman think-tanks from entering our mental space. Let's try to get a few missiles off the ground at this one.

Professor Prais believes our children are lagging behind their continental counterparts because of Britain's obsession with Shakespeare. Teaching him and others "of the canon" is, Prais argues, "damaging the less able children" and is the cause of the appalling crisis of literacy among school-leavers.

"The true issue is whether his writings occupy an excessive part of the school timetable, and whether that part should vary according to pupils' interests, mix of talents, and career aims."

Strange how the most stupid ideas can sound so reasonable - and the most life-enhancing often hopelessly potty.

Note the prime example of "the requirements for life" that springs to the professor's mind. It is not, say, knowing how to survive in one of life's dark woods (As You Like It); or being warned of the horror of totalitarian politics (Macbeth) and the vanity of rulers (Coriolanus, King Lear); or of the ferocity of jealousy and sexual obsession (Othello); or of the pitfalls of thinking about yourself too much (Hamlet); or the corrosive consequences of greed (Shylock, Timon); or of being shown how to be courageous in love (the Sonnets, Romeo and Juliet); or of being aware that the world is full of surprises (A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Oh no. Schools are there to teach the writing of CVs.

On the level of practical teaching alone, Professor Prais's comments are absurd. I suppose most secondary schools have five English language and literature lessons a week, with some library reading time. Of those, say two are taken up with studying literature. That would be 20 lessons term, or around 60 a year.

Can you really teach writing CVs and polite letters week in, week out, for five years up to GCSE? It would surely drive pupils to degrees of alienation deeper than anything Will's Henry plays could inflict upon them. Surely it need only take a few sessions to teach "workplace skills" at the end of a school career?

If the pupils cannot string a few clear sentences together by then, I doubt whether their illiteracy is Shakespeare's fault, even if they've had to learn sonnets by rote and stand up on their desks to recite them.

I suspect there are two assumptions behind Professor Prais's comments - one traditionalist and one trendy. Both are surely deleterious to education.

The traditionalist assumption is that lower achievers cannot appreciate the great literature of their inheritance because - to be blunt - they are too thick.

No one in the theatrical profession, especially those with Theatre in Education experience, would accept that for a moment. I once had the privilege of seeing a so-called low-ability class taken through Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. The pupils loved it.

It's a performer's item of faith that it is possible to communicate the most complex of ideas to nearly everyone; surely it's a teacher's too?

The trendy assumption is that there is something called a "learning skill" which can be acquired without studying, or indeed without actually learning anything at all. It says let us equip our children not with hard knowledge, or a philosophical relationship with the world, but with "tools" to fit their career aims and prospects. Education is there to make well-functioning social mechanisms.

But the trouble with Daleks is that they are fine when they are on flat studio floors but their circuitry becomes psychotic when faced with a flight of stairs.

We can all at times feel trapped by what Lawrence called "the voice of my accursed human education". But teaching Shakespeare is a humanist project - going to school to understand the world and reinvent it. Now there's a really potty educational idea: how on earth did Erasmus get by?

Howard Brenton is a playwright whose works include 'Romans in Britain' and 'Pravda'

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