I was at a barbecue the other day, and somehow got into a conversation with a mathematician about Shakespeare. This guy was definitely no dummy, but he said that he found reading Shakespeare in high school English to be a very discouraging experience – that being thrown a text in language that was 400 years old was alienating, and felt like he was being asked to run before he could walk.
Then, I was talking to my folks last night, and mentioned that I was reading “The Favourite Game” by Leonard Cohen, which I had grabbed off of mom’s shelf a few years ago. I told them that I was glad I hadn’t tried to read it in high school or university when I loved Cohen’s poetry, but had no understanding of Montreal or Jewish culture, which both feature prominently in the book. It would have been like my first attempt at “The Edible Woman,” when I was so far removed from the context that I was just bored, and had to wait another 6 years or so to give it another try and understand why mom loved it when she was in her 20s.
This line of conversation led naturally to Mordecai Richler. I, like most kids in Ontario, read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in high school, and I didn’t get it. I didn’t touch Richler again for over 10 years, until I picked up Barney’s Version, which I quite enjoyed. I commented to the folks that maybe it didn’t make sense to teach Duddy to a bunch of high school kids in Bruce County – I probably read more than any other student in my class, and I still found the book completely uninspiring.
And what about Shakespeare? I am a firm believer that Shakespeare’s work has universal themes that we can all relate to, and that he really was a master of word-play. But I didn’t learn these things from high school English class. Dare I say I learned them despite high school English class? I learned to appreciate Shakespeare from good film and live adaptations – Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet, lively Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shakespeare in the Park, and through literature and acting classes taken in university (and because I was a freak-child who got her mother to read Shakespeare to her when she was 8).
Mom countered my suggestion that Duddy should be shelved with the proposition that if kids didn’t get exposed to Richler (and Shakespeare, I assume) in high school, many of them would never get exposed to it. Most kids weren’t going to grow up like me to do a degree in English literature and continue to read as a major form of entertainment throughout their lives.
So here's the issue that these conversations have left me pondering – is it worth exposing high school students to good literature that isn’t going to speak to them if it will turn them off of reading altogether? Is it more important to ensure that everyone is exposed to a certain number of classics, both Canadian and otherwise, or should the schools strive first and foremost to engender a love of books as a place where we can explore truths and philosophies, and learn about the world around us, even if some of those books seem more "pop"? I think this strikes on some pretty deep issues of what education is for – is it for making sure we all come out of school with universal exposure to a number of texts, facts, etc., or is it there to make us think, and to give us the tools to continue to think throughout our lives? Or, is it somewhere in between?
And a final question – if you buy into my proposition that Duddy should be shelved, what books are good for high school English? And does Shakespeare get to stay just because he’s special, or should his ubiquitousness in the classroom be examined as well?