Should Shakespeare be optional at school?


Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash


Is Shakespeare still relevant in 2021? is by far the most read on the School Should Be blog. It's a bit of a rant, much of it emotionally fuelled after conversations with my students, but it definitely continues to encourage a healthy debate. A producer at GB News read my blog and for Shakespeare Week, I was asked to talk to Eamonn Holmes and Isabel Webster on the GB News Breakfast Show to discuss why Shakespeare should be optional on the GCSE curriculum. After a fairly brief and balanced chat, I was greeted with a very inaccurate article by GB News, the opposite of what I’d said. Cue a tirade of Twitter trolling, racist abuse, insults, unnecessary exhaustion and anxiety for me. GB News edited the article and apologised to me. The majority of racist and discriminatory tweets seem to have been deleted too (I think). But, it didn’t undo the emotional (and reputational) damage for me.

Just to clarify: I do NOT think Shakespeare should be scrapped, cancelled, banned or removed from school curriculums. I do think Shakespeare’s plays (and other canonical works) should be optional at GCSE to make room for a range of other plays, prose and poetry that students may enjoy, relate to and find more accessible than Shakespeare’s language.

I DID NOT say Shakespeare was inaccessible. However, his language can be difficult to understand on first, second and third reading. I want to speak and learn from anyone who can skim read King Lear, like a Saturday morning paper?! As culturally and contextually rich and important his works are, it can take a range of amazing lessons (from primary school onwards), help notes, entertaining YouTube videos, research articles, drama plays and more, for students to critically understand his plays. For those not in the teaching world, studying Shakespeare at school can of course be ‘fun’. But ultimately, if we centralise the student, their qualification in English Literature (and therefore their academic success and a defining marker of their academic ‘intelligence’) is based on their understanding of a 16th-century author. In 2022, surely I can’t be the only one who sees this as even slightly problematic.


Making it an option is not an ‘easy’ route by any means; nor does it mean scrapping or 'cancelling' Shakespeare - or any other canonical author. It simply means enabling students and teachers to explore a wider range of culturally rich and diverse authors too - all of whom are equally as relevant and contribute to British culture and context. Anyone who fears the contrary clearly has very little faith in the value of canonical works. In many ways, it says more about their appreciation of literature and school than it does about my abilities as a teacher (FYI, I got some of the best results year on year for my students, and I’m damn still sure my classes would ace Shakespeare or any exam).


For those who think scrapping Shakespeare means scrapping English history and culture…you have a pretty narrow view of our past. Just saying.


Trolling


The experience got me thinking about cancel culture, social media, ‘free speech’ and, what seems to be an inability to have a decent discussion without the exhaustion of being attacked and trolled. Social media is a double-edged sword, a necessary evil and a way of life for us now. So how do we drown out the trolling?


Well, for one, it’s not good enough to just think students and individuals can find the inner strength and resilience to constantly ‘rise above it’. We’re human after all and students still have so much lifelong learning to do - to expect them to recover from the mental and emotional trauma caused by social media trolling is a big ask.


For the racist tweets I reported, I received a response from Twitter to tell me ‘we didn’t find any violation of our rules in the content you reported’. If a major A.I. platform has difficulties recognising blatant discrimination and bullying, imagine the work teachers and parents have to do to combat this on a daily basis - ON TOP OF teaching Shakespeare and more.


I don’t have an answer to my question. It’s definitely made me want to do more to rid the world of trolling, especially for the health, wellbeing and sanity of future generations. The irony of trolling someone about cancel culture infuriates me and also makes me think every single troll needs to go back to school - although I would hate to, knowingly, unleash that type of behaviour on teachers and students. But, I guess, in true teacher, parent, carer and HUMAN style, we continue to drown out the trolls with respect, courtesy, humility and kindness. And, sometimes, a bit of an echo chamber rant.

1 comment