Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Shakespeare at 14, Joyce at 60

It’s extraordinary how many self-appointed experts claim that what modern education needs is a proper grounding in the basics. You know. Shakespeare. Dickens. To say nothing of fractions. And dates in history.

Pontificating politicians from across the political spectrum make this claim. Pundits of the right unsurprisingly proclaim it, but to my disappointment so do people who ought to know better on the left.

In my view, those who feel kids ought to learn dates lack a fundamental quality for the study of history: a memory. They’re obviously incapable of recalling their schooldays and the murder of memorising dates, particularly at an age when dates are things you crave for not things you learn by rote. A sense of chronology is useful in history, but you could probably work out that the Second World War came after the First without precise knowledge of the dates of either.

The study of fractions is even more ghastly. Who on earth has ever needed to know, outside a classroom, what 4/17 of anything was? The only time you ever get anywhere near this kind of division is when you’re cutting up a cake and, hey, all you do is cut the slices small so it goes round with some left over for the greedy ones.

And it’s just as bad with literature. Great books? Oh, you mean Dickens? Or Shakespeare? I bet you the Bard would be mortified (if he weren’t already dead) at the idea of nearly twenty generations of kids being bored mindless by great chunks of incomprehensible blank verse. What fourteen-year old know or cares what it means to make your quietus with a bare bodkin?

A really inspirational teacher can bring all this stuff to life. I remember my boys quoting chunks of Macbeth to each other, at home. Forsooth. It was the most striking testimony to a fine teacher. But such teaching is rare and most kids leave school convinced that there is nothing duller than Shakespeare, except perhaps Dickens.

It’s curious, however, that there comes a time in life when you can suddenly discover a taste for all these things. I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was about sixteen and was fascinated by it, as well as appalled by the description of hell. I switched to Ulysses. Utterly turgid. Stream of consciousness? It left me unconscious within minutes.

And that view stuck with me for over four decades. Until a couple of weeks ago when I downloaded an audio version of the book. What a fabulous novel! A pace that just whips along. Writing full of humour and charm. A real delight.

I had to get the Kindle version too so that I could check up on some of the material and it’s as much fun to read as to listen to. Turgid? You’ve got to be kidding.

That fine Dublin fellow Joyce.
Worth waiting to get to know
But Ive realised all that as I approach my sixtieth birthday. Trying to foist Ulysses on me in my teens would have put me off completely. 

What we need to communicate to teenagers is simply a desire to read anything at all, a sense that there’s pleasure in it. And let them read what they like. Pride and Prejudice if they want, Harry Potter if they prefer.

So why is there this deadly consensus that we need to force kids to deal with the classics at a time when they have no interest in them? Why impose on them what we found deadly when we were their age? Why do we think that what we hated is good for others?

But here we’re at the central question of power in society. It’s wielded by people who have little feeling for other people’s concerns.

And the worst of it? Some of them get into positions of power precisely because they share those concerns and want to help. Somehow it’s the very fact of holding power that drives the fellow-feeling out of them.

My message? Wake up. Don’t tell others what they should be doing, particularly if you wouldn’t be prepared to do it yourselves.

And, in particular, stop forcing Shakespeare on fourteen-year olds. Let them decide when they want to get to know classic writing. Even if they only meet Joyce at sixty.

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