Much Ado About Learning

Shakespeare me

This year I’m participating in the Shakespeare 2020 Project, wherein members are challenged to read Shakespeare’s entire canon in one year. All 37 plays, 154 sonnets, plus poems, books and even a few things that he may not have actually written. So far, it’s going pretty well, but it’s early days yet.

Part of the fun of this experience (adventure?) (boondoggle?) is the distraction of discovering so many Shakespeare-related resources, recordings, productions, quotes, household products, t-shirts, and of course memes.

One quote in particular has stuck with me:

Compulsory Shakespeare gives a student as much love for literature as compulsory chapel gives them reverence for religion.

Isn’t that the truth.

In fact, when I mentioned to one of my friends that I would be spending (wasting?) (investing?) my entire year reading Shakespeare and that she might want to join me, she answered with an emphatic no! and went on to explain that she had been forced to study Shakespeare in high school and that it was such a bad experience — and it had made her feel like such a failure — that she has not and will never read anything he’d written ever again. Certainly, it’s fair to say, no love of literature was created there.

But isn’t this true of many (most?) (all?) of the things we’re forced to study in school? Studying history and memorizing dry facts, faceless names, and meaningless dates was not the thing that gave me an appreciation for history. Biology: Meiosis. Mitosis. Kingdom/Phylum/Class. Dissecting frogs?! No. And years of learning math certainly did not instill in me an appreciation for math. If anything, quite the opposite.

There are a number of competing and converging goals for education: to create productive employees, to instill a love of learning, to keep kids out of trouble, to teach citizens how to think critically, and to give people necessary life skills are among them. But traditional education doesn’t do any of these things particularly well.

Although I am absolutely a believer in the value of education, and in particular the importance of a free, quality public education in creating and maintaining a healthy democratic society, somehow the practice does not seem to be equal to the potential. School rarely leads to an appreciation for the subject matter, nor does it encourage a love of learning.

I certainly do not mean to disparage teachers. I think teaching is a noble and worthy profession. A number of my good friends and several family members are educators. Most of the teachers I know are dedicated hardworking (underpaid) professionals who strive heroically to do their best for the students in their charge.

But I would not say that very many of them manage to instill a love of learning in the majority of their kids.

What is it about formal education that causes things to become so very UN-interesting?


I did not come to my interest in Shakespeare through reading it in school. In fact, I struggled mightily when I took my one and only course on the Bard in college, having neither the contextual background nor, quite frankly, the literary skills necessary to do well in the class. The professor didn’t help much either. Although I’m sure in his own way he tried.

But I’ve come to an appreciation and an understanding of not only Shakespeare but other works of classic literature in my own time. I won’t chart my journey here, but it’s been a delightful one.

The wonderful thing about taking part in the Shakespeare reading challenge is that I have chosen to do it. It’s something that appealed to me on a variety of levels, and that’s the only reason that I’m participating. I’m not being forced, and I’m not fulfilling some external requirement. I don’t have to do any part of it that I don’t want to do.

If I want to read the plays out of order, or frankly if I don’t get around to one or more of the items on the list, I have no one to answer to. And speaking of answering, I’m not required to respond to arbitrary questions about symbolism, foreshadowing or subtext. I’m free to come to my own darned conclusions about the validity of various theories on authorship, and the identity of the Dark Lady without argument or the need to write an excruciatingly painful essay on the topic.

And coming at this learning experience as an adult, I already have a lot of the necessary knowledge and background that give me context for my reading. As an avid reader of British history, the history plays are endlessly fascinating to me. And now I’m free to pull at historical threads and follow them for as long as my interest and time allow.

That’s the kind of learning that instills intellectual curiosity and an appreciation for a subject. Why can’t school be more like that for students?

The short answer is that we have neither the time nor the resources necessary to teach that way. The full answer, of course is much more complicated. The truth is, we just don’t want to.

Of course I don’t suggest that students should only study subjects that they’re interested in, or that they should never be challenged to answer questions they don’t like. But a big part of what takes the joy out of learning is the intense focus on quantifiable outcomes. And the quantifiable outcome in the case of education is the test score.

Tests are the apparent indicator of success for both students and teachers (as well as schools, districts, and the American education system in its entirety).

We have to be able to put our results in a chart. We have to be able to compare this year’s results with last year’s results. And we have to know how well our schools compare to one another and to other schools around the world. Without all these tests, how can we know whether our students are learning? How else can we possibly know how we’re doing?

To be able to fairly quantify the results, you need to have questions for which there are easily identifiable and unambiguous right and wrong answers: When? 1492 Who? Franklin D. Roosevelt. Where? Gettysburg. Which? Phylum Cordata. How big? 3.14159. These are all answers that are easy to quantify.

Yet love of learning and curiosity are not results which are quantifiable. “What do you want to know more about?” “How did this spark your interest?” “Tell me how this made you feel” do not lend themselves to being answered in a true/false, multiple choice, or essay question. They can’t be bubbled into a ScanTron.

The intense competition for college and the assumption that a college education is the only path to success in modern society is another reason kids don’t enjoy learning. Their end goal is only the GPA, not the process nor a deep understanding of the subject matter. Parents put too much pressure on them to focus on grades. Society puts too much pressure on them. And they put too much pressure on themselves.

Sadly, so many of the people I’ve known who have 4.0s are the people who seem to have the least intellectual curiosity. Getting the right answer is not always the best way to discover new things or grow intellectually. In fact, studies show that there is no correlation between high grades and success in the workplace or long term success in life.

Those societies that produce students with exceptional skills in mathematics — those who can amaze you with their fast math and their high scores on standardized math tests — are not the societies which are known for their innovation. In fact the opposite. Real innovation happens where people are free to follow their own passions and ideas wherever they may take them.

As with so many other aspects of modern society, we have become too entrenched in the way we do things in the field of education. There are too many vested interests. Too many people whose lives and livelihoods are based on the current system. Too many fortunes that are dependent on maintaining the status quo for us to be able to change our schools now.

Education is one of the most profitable sectors in our economy. It is the second largest industry (after health care) in the United States, generating $1.3 trillion and expected to reach over $2 trillion by 2026. And where huge profits are involved, the quality of the end product is almost never the driving force. Yet even with (or perhaps because of) these astronomical sums, and in spite of all we have learned in the last 50 years about how people learn, I don’t think that anyone could honestly argue that the results are better today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. I’d also venture a guess that if you ask anyone they’d say education outcomes will only continue to get worse.

Moreover, in spite of the fortunes being made by education publishing companies, testing services, and the rest, schools themselves and the teachers in them are constantly having the noose tightened and are always expected to do more with less.

A healthier society would be one in which education was a goal, not a goldmine. One where schoolkids were able to follow their own interests and paths. One where students focused more on curiosity than on acing tests. And one where schools were more successful at fostering an appreciation for learning that lasted into adulthood.

Of course, forcing students to read Shakespeare as part of a well-rounded education is nothing new. After all, the quote above is (ostensibly) from 1920. But all that really does is show that we’ve been headed down the wrong path for a very long time. As the results clearly indicate.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve sometimes thought–although I don’t take myself too seriously on this–that kids should be told that they’re not yet ready to read the classics. Nope, kids, put that down. Gotta wait. It’s for grownups. Then they might actually be interested when they pick them up.

    Like

    1. I do like the reverse psychology approach. It would probably work.
      But seriously, why DO we make kids read things that were written for adults, as though they are somehow appropriate or even accessible to 15 year old minds? It doesn’t make sense to me.

      Like

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