Should We Still Study Shakespeare? Addressing The Problems With Our National Curriculum

Parents

To any of us who studied English at A-Level in the UK, at least one of the following titles will be familiar: Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, A Streetcar Named Desire. Going back further, to GCSE, An Inspector Calls, Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies will no doubt incite yet more pangs of nostalgia (or residual dread, depending on what your experience was). If you’re more than ten years out of school, it may surprise you to learn that many of these same texts are still studied by teenagers throughout the country. A few swaps have been made but most are still going strong. Or perhaps it doesn’t surprise you at all, given the tendency of our national curriculum to stubbornly resist change. But how do we decide which texts young people should be studying at school?

Why do we study literature?

If we want to answer the question of whether Shakespeare, or the work of any other writer, should retain its place on the syllabus, we need to think about why we study literature at all. English Literature is a compulsory subject all the way up to A-level, having beaten various other contenders, including History and Geography, at the post. Why do we deem it so important for young people’s education? In Tutor House’s eyes, there are three main reasons that English Literature has remained a core subject:

  1. It instills a taste for reading at an early age. (Or at least it attempts to.) 
  2. It teaches students interpretive, as well as writing, skills, encouraging them to be active participants in what they read. Teaching students to seek out nuance and read between the lines of any piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is an invaluable skill that should be nurtured as thoroughly as possible in schools.
  3. It plunges students into what is among the most immersive experiences of empathy that it is possible to have. It offers students the opportunity to discover literature’s ability to access our humanity in a way that few other media can. 

So, what does this tell us about the writers that should be on the national curriculum?

Is Shakespeare still relevant?

English Literature is a subject that contributes directly to students’ ability to function as writers and communicators in contemporary society. With this in mind, some may feel that Shakespeare, along with other writers of eras past, should be abandoned by schools. In their eyes, the archaic language bears no relation to contemporary expression, and the themes he explores don’t offer any direct commentary on the issues of our time. If English enthusiasts want to study him, they can wait until university; he should be classified as niche. But we believe there are limits to this viewpoint’s validity. 

Contemporary literature, however important, should not be made to eclipse canonical works all together. Texts of bygone eras bring the past alive. They show students that the issues society encounters are often cyclical and tied up with what it means to be human. Shakespeare’s texts provide among the most prominent examples of this. Studying them can almost feel like interpreting a foreign language when students are first starting out but, with time and attention, readers are able to uncover the universality of the experiences they depict. They also display some of the vital developments that were taking place in the English language at the time they were written, Shakespeare himself having coined many of the expressions we use today. If there is an argument for keeping Shakespeare on our national curriculum, this would be it. 

Representation and debate

However, Shakespeare’s ability to stand up in the face of criticism doesn’t negate the fact that GCSE and A-level English texts are in need of a shakeup. Studying novels and plays that students can relate to, and have direct relevance to the issues that are being discussed at present, will have a positive effect on building students’ appetite for reading. Showcasing the diversity that we have on today’s writing scene - both in terms of authors and subject matter - should be a priority. While, for instance, neurodiverse literature, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is starting to be introduced, these kinds of shifts have not gone far enough and issues that are still being actively grappled with need to be represented. 

In fact, syllabuses also shouldn’t shy away from writing that invites diverging opinions and even controversy. Works such as We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example, which raises confronting questions about motherhood, teenage violence and parental responsibility, should be considered as options. Readers generally have very different responses to this novel’s ending and bringing this opportunity for debate and engagement into the classroom would inject some much needed passion into our country’s literary studies. Our current set texts represent well-trodden interpretive paths and a relatively safe approach. But should we really be prioritising what’s safe? Should we not be allowing students to debate and access a diverse range of opinions through what they’re reading in class? It’s no secret that young people often struggle to conduct rational, respectful discussions, on social media for example, preferring to resort to threats and abuse. We should be asking what their schooling can do to teach them how to discuss points of controversy sensibly and maturely.

Beauty for beauty’s sake

As fundamental as empathy is in the reading experience, an excessive focus on texts that are overly moralistic should also be avoided. Young people don’t want to be preached at any more than the rest of us do. Nor do they deserve to be presented with the narrow-minded view of literature that it is only there to teach readers how to be better people. With this in mind, it’s time, in Tutor House’s humble opinion, to end the reign of the exhaustingly didactic An Inspector Calls. Space needs to be factored in for texts that step away from social commentary all together, particularly at A-Level. Texts which bring to life the beauty of expression for its own sake have an equally important role to play in developing teenagers’ appreciation of reading as texts that overtly hold up a mirror to social issues. For this category, there really are an infinite number of writers that would fit the bill from Italo Calvino to Tom Stoppard to Virginia Woolf.

Change it up

So, the message of the day is balance. From William Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, students need to be studying material that showcases a whole range of literary possibilities and demonstrates just how broad a subject English is. However we choose to make this a reality, active, regular changes to set texts are vital.

This is because leaving texts to fester on the national curriculum for many years, and even decades, does not only fail to acknowledge the changing zeitgeists of our times. It also has a negative effect on how students are taught to analyse texts. The way English is currently taught encourages students to put forward the same batch of tried and tested points about set texts that their teachers spoon-feed them year after year. They are almost discouraged from engaging with the texts on a genuine, personal level, potentially resulting in a deeply uncreative response to literature among our young people. 

Regularly updating texts would keep teachers on their toes, allowing them to grapple with the original perspectives of their students. Who knows, this may even lead to mark schemes becoming less prescriptive and more encouraging of independent thought. Reading and text analysis are among the most interesting and - in spite of popular opinion - relevant skills you can have in our media-saturated culture. Teaching students to respond independently and thoughtfully to the stimuli they are being fed - whether in a book or on a Twitter feed - is key to building a society of effective critical thinkers.

So, to be or not be…?

It’s clear that our national curriculum is in need of a good few changes. So, if we want to keep Shakespeare on our syllabus, we're going to have to bargain for him.

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Ella Burgess

Ella is a content writer at Tutor House and explores a range of education centred topics, having previously spent time teaching English while living abroad. A foreign language enthusiast and lover of text art, she is devoted to words in all their forms. She'll happily immerse herself in anything wordy from conceptual art to vintage murder mysteries.

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