Saturday 27 February 2016

Brendan O'Neill feeding myth-making about Shakespeare on Question Time

I see that the bloke who was on 'Any Questions' last night, Brendan O'Neill, is part of the group who came out of 'Living Marxism'. His line last night was that there has been a long term effort to cheat working class people of high status stuff like Shakespeare. So far, apparently radical. But what mechanism did he claim was causing this? Apparently, the left. 
Some problems with this:
1. The Labour Party in power under Blair and, in education, under Blunkett, was hardly 'Left'. The Literacy and Numeracy strategies that they brought in were of course justified on the basis of helping 'equality', but it was hardly welcomed by the Left. People suspected it was an attempt to steal the Tories' thunder by being even more controlling than the Tories were at the time, and it was full of very dull, repetitive, detailed stuff that left teachers and professional associations with hardly any input. In so far as there was any 'dumbing down' going on under these strategies, it applied to everyone. 
2. Under the present dispensation - Gove and post-Gove, they have stuffed the curriculum full of the stuff that O'Neill claimed was not being taught. So, why the BBC let's ignorant people spout about what is supposedly going on in schools, I have no idea. So, if O'Neill wants Shakespeare, there it is in the curriculum. (Why it's there is another matter.) However, the dumbing down (if it takes place) is because the way the curriculum is devised is that it guarantees failure in the high stakes testing. That's what it's for. 
3. O'Neill's other point was the usual crap about a golden age. He gave the example of his father learning Shakespeare 'in a bog' in Ireland - presumably some time in the 1950s and 60s. Did city working class and rural working class children in the 50s and 60s get more high status cultural education than English children of the last few decades? The key thing here, though, is the 'narrative of decline'. As far as England is concerned, if you took a snapshot of which school students were reading Shakespeare in schools in the 1950s and 60s, then again, no one was in hand to correct the picture. 
It worked like this: 3/4 of children at 11 went to Sec Mods, most of whom left school at 15 with no qualifications. Very, very few of these would have read Shakespeare. Perhaps some top streams did being coached for entry to grammar schools in the sixth forms. In grammar schools, some students also left school at 15 before studying whole Shakespeare plays. Then - this is the bit that's often missed, the 'O-level' English exam did not include any set texts of literature! That was a separate O-level option called 'English Literature' - done by a minority of students. 
So, there is no mythical time of the past in England when all, or even a majority, of school students studied whole Shakespeare plays - least of all in the 1950s and 60s. It's purely imaginary.