Why Shakespeare is still Shift-hot.

“Basically speaking, there are only a few human stories…and they’ve all been told before” – Norman Vincent Peel.

Microsoft recently put together a presentation called “Shift Happens” – and it talks about the rate at which the world is changing, developing and advancing. It’s really interesting, and a little bit scary, truth be told. Anyway, one of the reasons that teacher training-type people have jumped on it as something to be shown on every available course is that it showcases the need to imbue the children of today with a set of universal skills that can be adapted to any circumstance, not simply to teach them the tired old curriculum that raised the generation who actually effected these changes. Just pointing out that we did ok on what we were given at school, but I suppose a change is as good as a rest, so let’s go along with it.

It points out that the average person is expected to have 10-14 jobs before the age of 38. That seemed unrealistic to me, especially as I think I have found the career that will see me through to retirement at only 27, but then I thought about the various roles I have had since 2004 when I left university, and it turns out that teaching is my ninth job. Now, some of them were never “careers”, they were just bill-paying short term ideas, but nevertheless, for each one of them I needed to have a different skill set and couldn’t rely on the number of GCSEs and A-Levels I had, but rather on the life skills I had learned whilst I was growing up. There’s plenty of evidence that the shift is happening – people with far fewer qualifications than I have are earning a lot more than I am – and if it’s true that by the time most students finish the third year of a university course, most of what they learned in their first year will be outdated, it does speak volumes to the need to have skills to get by in life, not specific qualifications in single things.

With this in mind, some students have asked me… “What’s the point of reading plays from 400 years ago?” Yes, it’s nearly time to start GCSE coursework on Shakespeare, and the question will undoubtedly be rolled out again. And it’s not an unreasonable question either. What IS the point of studying archaic language, from a different time in history?

Well, I’m about to give you the answer, those of you who are worried. The answer is quite simply that the plays of Shakespeare, like them or loathe them, have much to teach us about life, love, society and the human condition. There is an oft-misquoted saying that says “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is monumental evidence that suggests this remark is accurate, and yet there is even more evidence to suggest it is wilfully ignored by all who read it.

But while the language of Shakespeare may have long since died, the themes and insights that the language conveys have not. Call me a dusty old clichéd English teacher all you want, but what possible future world can you imagine for the children of today in which they won’t need to understand (or at the very least encounter) Love, Death, Sex, Violence, Gangs, Politics, Peer Pressure, Honour, Betrayal, Heartbreak, Bitterness, Revenge, Divorce, Family Tensions, Satire, Humour…?

If we have to learn from the past to avoid having to repeat it (and more importantly, to help us understand it when it happens to us) then I can’t think of a better teacher than the work of Shakespeare, if for no other reason than it shows us that with all the changes that the world has undergone in the last 400 years, the people who live in it, and the day-to-day issues that they face are still basically the same. The skills we need and the world we inhabit may change, but we do not. And surely a better understanding of ourselves is a key component in dealing with any new innovations the fast-moving world of the 21st century cares to throw at us.

So, why is Shakespeare still taught? Because there is still so much it can teach.


About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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