As regular readers of this column might recall, at school I hated Shakespeare. I thought it was “a load of old shit” – an interpretation of his work that was concise, if a little reductive. So after recently performing a one-eighty on my Shakespeare stance, imagine my delight when two Macbeths came along at once, like well-subsidised buses.
At the National Theatre, Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are having a crack at Mr and Mrs M, while in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company has Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack doing their best to portray literature’s least-relaxed couple. Both productions are based on the same text but could not be more different. One is set in a dystopian future with tribal gangs competing for supremacy under a leader dominated by his powerful wife. The other depicts a vaguely polite present-day political struggle, with a charismatic protagonist whose minutes are numbered after his twitchy spouse nudges him towards his first kill.
Thinking about how the two companies interpreted the same source material so differently got me wondering about subjectivity from a teaching perspective. We teach. We interpret. We tell stories about a syllabus.
Here are some questions. (Spoiler: the answers are “yes”.) Regardless of the subject specialism, do we teach based on our own interpretation of the source material? Do we unconsciously shape the syllabus according to our own beliefs of what is and isn’t important? Do those who prescribed the syllabus do that, too? Hang on … is everybody on every rung of the educational ladder doing what they’re told according to the opinion of someone else higher up?
Ummm. Yes. Yes we are. But what if we don’t all agree on the validity or value of the knowledge?
The importance of interpretation
History is perhaps the most obvious example. We know that it was written by those with the biggest/richest/whitest/male-ist gobs. So while there are probably some facts involved – times, places and such like – the rest of the story is just the opinion of those who won.
I’ve been guilty of over-teaching elements of the functional skills English curriculum that I think will have more long-term value for my learners. (Being able to confidently discuss a topic without coming to blows or remaining resolutely mute, for example.) I’ve also openly dissed bits of it that I think are ridiculously outdated but are likely to crop up in the exam. (Who writes “an informal letter” nowadays?)
Now more than ever, in a world where confidence in what might once have been taken as fact is continually being challenged, we need to ensure our students are awake to the idea of interpretation. In teaching, we’re telling them a story about a syllabus and there are other possibilities, too, but ultimately the source text is key. Without that, there can’t be any interpretation. We’re entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own syllabus.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons