by Alec Patton The BBC reported today that over 400 parents at Kingsmead Community School in Somerset have signed a petition demanding that the school's Media module stop using class and homework time to analyse The Simpsons, and devote the newly freed-up time to studying Shakespeare. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, parent Joseph Reynolds particularly recommended A Midsummer Night's Dream. 'There's a time and a place for The Simpsons,' Reynolds said, 'but it doesn't belong in the classroom.' Reynolds appears to have a particular understanding of pedagogy, based on two commonly-held but erroneous premises: that the main function of education is to expose students to new things, and that education that prepares students to negotiate the day-to-day world they'll be living in is not 'real' education. I'll look at these assumptions in turn:
Exposure is not the same as understanding
People who don't understand education often think that a teacher's job is to introduce students to unfamiliar things. Actually, the best teachers help their students to look at familiar things with new eyes - so physics teaches students to look at suspension bridges in a new way, biology completely alters their understanding of saliva, and learning about the Holocaust completely transforms what they think when someone calls somebody else 'queer' on the playground. It's wonderful when a teacher introduces you to something that you've never encountered before, but it's just as wonderful when teachers turn the everyday into something rich and strange. To their great credit, Kingsmead are standing behind their Media teachers. Assistant Head Andy Dunnett told the BBC that 'Students are encouraged to look at the text in a critical way. Initially it's about building up their skills as critical thinkers. They also learn about different aspects of the media; audience, visual narrative, presentation and stereotypes, and some quite high level thinking ideas like satire, irony and parody.' This brings me to my response to Reynolds' second assumption...
Education should prepare students for living in the world
You might think everyone feels this way, but the curriculum suggests otherwise. To give one example, most schools take it for granted that 'there's a time and a place for economics, but it's not the mathematics classroom'. So, students graduate able to measure a triangle within an inch of its life, but not to compare interest rates on mortgage offers. And they graduate able to identify a sly reference to Spanish succession in an Elizabethan play, but not to critically engage with popular media - that is to say, the billboards, posters, magazines, TV programmes, and advertisements that tell them they should buy more, lose weight, plug their sweat glands, indulge in snack foods, despise those who come to this country looking for protection from tyranny, and get angrier at benefits cheats than at tax cheats.
There's some pretty dodgy stuff in a Midsummer Night's Dream (the play's first scene explicitly argues that if a woman falls in love with the man who kidnapped her, it's a good thing), but kids aren't going to be encountering it every day for the rest of their lives. William Shakespeare himself suffered the slings and arrows of the dreary snobbery that animates Reynolds' petition - Ben Jonson alluded to this when he interrupted his memorial poem to Shakespeare to point out that his subject 'hadst small Latin and less Greek.' Shakespeare got his own back most effectively in Love's Labour Lost, with the latin-spouting buffoon Holofernes, who analyses a contemporary love poem as follows:
You find not the apostraphas, and so miss the accent: let me supervise the canzonet. Here are only numbers ratified; but, for the elegancy, facility, and golden cadence of poesy, caret. Ovidius Naso was the man: and why, indeed, Naso, but for smelling out the odouriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention? Imitari is nothing: so doth the hound his master, the ape his keeper, the tired horse his rider. But, damosella virgin, was this directed to you? (IV,2,1268)
It's easy to imagine a real-life Elizabethan Holofernes petitioning a school to stop teaching Shakespeare, and teach more Ovidius Naso. Shakespeare, who in his time was a contemporary writer (a fact often-forgotten by crusaders like Reynolds) vividly understood how education calficies when it neglects what is happening NOW.