“Why do I need to do Shakespeare, Sir? I’m gonna work with my dad plucking turkeys.”
This is a paraphrase of a particular question that I’ve been asked many times over my teaching career, and it reflects a particularly curious attitude towards what schooling should be for. The turkey bit is a half-truth.
I was asked recently by a a friend of a friend who happens to be a primary school teacher a version of this question; this version echoes something I’ve heard from many colleagues and read in many Twitter and Facebook conversations over the last year or so: Does a six year old need to know about subordinate clauses (or whatever the heck they are called now)? This is essentially the same question as whether or not a 14 year old should study Shakespeare if he’s not going to be quoting the Bard in his daily vocation.
Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.
This question reflects a train of thought which is that kids should only be taught things that they will need for some utilitarian purpose or other. How one determines what is and isn’t needed is never fully explained during these kinds of debates, but it seems that even approaches to reading and aspects of maths can sometimes fall under the un-needed heading.
The thing about this question is that the answer is really, very, very simple: No.
No, seven-year olds don’t need to know about clauses. No, 14 year olds don’t need to have any experience whatsoever of Shakespeare. But, come to that, no-one really needs anything that schooling has to offer. Human beings managed perfectly well without schooling in many societies for many centuries. Our offspring can learn all they need from us as parents, siblings, extended families, local communities and so on.
The need argument is reductionist and logically concludes in the abolition of schooling. We don’t need it. Come to that, we don’t need very much at all. Get rid of art, music, love, sex. Get rid of chocolate covered malted milk. Bye bye, lasagne. Bye bye, culture.
But the issue isn’t about need. It is about entitlement. You should do Shakespeare because it’s brilliant, and you might come to like it. You should do Shakespeare because it enriches your experience of life. You should do Shakespeare because, like Captain Kirk hugging, enveloping and making love to the mountain, it’s there!
Why shouldn’t my daughter learn about subjunctives? What is it about grammar, and maths, and poetry that people are so afraid of? Why have we made these things the bogeymen of educational experience? We should be encouraging our children to want to know these things, allowing our children to experience all that human culture, our culture – their culture – has gifted to us.
I know there’s an argument about which aspects of the cultural inheritance we choose to pass on, and how we decide which bits to leave out. And I know there is a serious conversation to be had about those choices. But, ultimately, to think just in utilitarian terms about what kids need is, to my mind, denying them a rich cultural heritage.
Someone on Twitter (and I really wish I could remember who, was it Martin Robinson? Or is this a Steve Original? ) once compared teaching to curating a museum or art gallery. I like this analogy.
Update: It was Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c) who made the analogy, in this post. Thanks to @5N_Afzal for tirelessly locating it!