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Educating Shakespeare: schools, creativity and genius

Microsoft Word - Educating Shakespeare pic.docxWe know almost nothing about Shakespeare’s life. At least, considering he is the greatest writer that ever lived, we know frustratingly little about most of it. And in the absence of concrete information an entire academic industry has been built on where he might have been and what doing when. Some of it verges on madness.

What seems almost certain, though, is that Shakespeare went to school. And as educationalist and stand-up comedian Sir Ken Robinson observed in a TED lecture, ‘Shakespeare was in somebody’s English class. How annoying would that be?’ Apart from cracking a joke, Robinson was also reminding his audience that Shakespeare wasn’t always the middle aged bloke with a bald head, large cranium and pointy beard that is the familiar image. Once upon a time he was a child who went to school.

Quite what Shakespeare made of the experience is of course further conjecture, but in As You Like It Jacques talks of the ‘whining school-boy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.’ Romeo makes a similar observation when he tells Juliet, ‘Love toward love, as schoolboys from their books/But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.’

In other words, he wasn’t a big fan. This isn’t a surprise. Schooling began at six o’clock in the morning in summer time (seven in winter), boys were frequently beaten (there was no grammar school education for girls) and learning was by rote. All of which prompts questions about the nature of schooling and creativity. If we wish to produce another Shakespeare, should we send our children to school earlier in the day, force them to memorize large chunks of Latin and Greek and beat them when they don’t?

Creativity is Sir Ken’s big theme and he contends our schools are designed to suppress it. One of his more engaging theories is that dance should be put at the heart of the curriculum, contending that we all have bodies and these should be more than just vehicles to move our brains from one place to another. Dance would set us free.

It’s hard to imagine what a world would be like in which dancing was the main focus of education. It’s also difficult to know what conditions would best foster creativity. As Sir Ken pointed out in another of his talks, the same music teacher at Liverpool Institute High School taught both Paul MaCartney and George Harrison and failed to discern any ability in either of them, yet along with John and Ringo they went on to form the biggest band in pop history.

Would they have succeeded in the same way if their talents had been spotted and nurtured? Would they have been even better if they’d spent more of the school day dancing? Are there certain types of creativity that require alienation and rejection to flourish? Were they just lucky?

Humans are naturally creative. We’re innate problem solvers and improvisers. But not much seems to be known about the creative process. Where do ideas come from? Why are most of them rubbish? Can creativity be taught in schools? Do Schools make any real difference? Would most children be better off without them? Would Shakespeare have been Shakespeare without the early morning beatings and the absence of dancing lessons?

Although it’s not certain he attended the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, it’s likely he did since his father was a member of the corporation that provided its finance. It dated back to the 15th century and by the 1570s probably had about forty pupils. These were taught by a single master, assisted by an usher. Parents were expected to equip their sons with ink, paper, quill pens and candles.

Formal schooling for boys began at the age of seven, but pupils were expected to be literate and numerate on entry, so young William must have had some previous education. Since both his parents signed their names with a mark, it’s unlikely either could write, but it’s equally probable both could read since his father was a successful businessman and his mother executrix of his grandfather’s will. Typically, a child of his background would have attended petty school between the ages of five and seven where he would have been taught simple arithmetic as well as to read and write.

Teachers at petty school were commonly women and often untrained. Those at grammar school would have been graduates and the curriculum far tougher. Shakespeare would have begun with Latin primers, having to memorize passages and study their grammatical construction, translate extracts and imitate classical authors. By the age of eight or nine he would have moved on to full texts by writers such as Ovid and might have acted in plays by Terence and Plautus (both of whom are cited as sources for The Comedy of Errors).

Famously, Ben Jonson asserted that Shakespeare had ‘little Latin and less Greek’, but it’s reckoned he had at least as good an understanding of Latin as a modern Classics graduate such as Boris Johnson, no relation. This is hardly surprising since rhetoric was another key part of grammar school education, taking in authors such as Cicero and Quintilian. Boys as young as nine would also have had to engage in debate, speakers having to attack or defend a proposition such as whether Brutus was right to assassinate Caesar, in Latin.

In the upper forms pupils would have been required to speak in Latin at all times and would have studied Virgil, Caesar and Horace amongst other major authors. Shakespeare, however, probably left school before those excitements. Up to the 1570s his father was a man on the rise. Then in 1576 his business collapsed and he was forced to sell his assets.

According to an early eighteenth century source, the family’s circumstances obliged William to leave school at fourteen in 1578 as, ‘the want of his assistance at Home, forc’d his Father to with draw him from thence.’ There is no more proof of when he left than that he ever went at all, but this account seems plausible. With John’s business in crisis and five siblings under the age of twelve, it’s highly likely that Shakespeare would have had to find work to help support them all.

If there is no firm evidence of Shakespeare’s schooling, there is circumstantially much in his plays to suggest he’d had a formal education, not least a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor in which a boy is quizzed in the street by his school master. It is irrelevant to the plot and inserted for its supposed comic value. Suggestively though, the child’s name is ‘William’ and the humour is at the expense of both his Welsh schoolmaster and the type of Latin exercises found in the standard Tudor textbook, Lily’s Grammar. This is about as hilarious as it sounds.

Ironically, children today must find studying Shakespeare at least as dull as he found Lily, Cicero, Quintilian and the rest, despite heroic efforts by the Shakespeare Comic Book Company. Quite what’s the point of it all is open to question. After universal state education was introduced by the Education Act of 1870, the aim was to provide working class children with basic literacy and arithmetical skills before a life of drudgery in factories or domestic service.

It’s obvious that one key aspect of modern education is to keep children off the street and reasonably occupied while their parents are at work. And for all their logos, mottoes and inspiring mission statements in glossy brochures, it’s doubtful how much real learning takes place in schools. Pupils today are relentlessly tested, their teachers’ role so prescribed that there is little room for flexibility, innovation or fun.

Should schools be about fun? Mine wasn't. Sent to a boarding school at the age of eleven I found it the usual combination of freezing dormitories, ghastly food and routine bullying. Discovering AS Neill and Summerhill, I decided I should have been sent there instead, but somehow this never happened.

Summerhill was the experimental school set up by Neill in the 1920s in which the child was autonomous, even the youngest having an equal vote in the school council which determined basic policy. Lessons were optional and children were left to occupy their days as they chose. In his late book, Summerhill, he argued that ‘a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.’

He also took the view conventional schools with their insistence on uniforms and regimentation with all their ‘interference and guidance on the part of adults’ could ‘only produce a generation of robots.’ His ambition was to produce happy children and Neill said he would rather a child grew up to become a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar. He also said he would consider himself a failure if any of his pupils went on to become prime minister. So far this has yet to occur.

Much of his philosophy now seems slightly bonkers, but Neill’s aim to produce happy children begins to seem more reasonable when contrasted with the experience of modern school students – growing numbers of whom are reported to become depressed, self-harm, develop eating disorders or even attempt suicide, in part due to the pressures of continual testing. Sir Ken has likened the system to a protracted process of university entrance exam. Which is fine for academic children destined for university, but inappropriate for those who would rather work with their hands, play football or sweep roads.

Would society be better off if schools merely produced happy adults rather than tormented individuals who hated themselves but produced great art or a cure for AIDS? Under the present regime we might end up with a generation of creative people who are balanced, happy souls. But what if all we get is miserable men and women who hate the thought of art and never want to look at a test tube?

Perhaps Sir Ken is right and schools should turn into dance studios. On the other hand, anyone who has ever seen me dance might favour a return to early starts, daily beatings and Quintilian.

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