The good, the Bard, the futile

September 7, 2007

The fact that Shakespeare and the Classics are no longer central in the study of literature and history should not alarm us, says Maria Misra

Are the twin pillars of Victorian gentlemanly education finally crumbling? News came recently that the opportunity to study Latin and Greek as separate A levels is to go. The OCR exam board, the last to offer these subjects, has announced plans to merge them with its "Classical civilisation" course. Meanwhile, the press has been in a lather at reports that Shakespeare is to be pushed from his pedestal at the heart of the Oxford English BA.

It seems not unduly fogeyish to bemoan the final extinction of Classics, especially as the rationale for its demise is clearly cost-driven. Apparently, this year only 183 people took Greek, while 9 chose Latin, and it is no longer deemed cost-effective to run separate exams in these subjects. This is clearly an example of the problems that emerge when markets invade education.

The case for Shakespeare seems more complicated. The press, in an outbreak of Bardolatory not witnessed since the early 19th century, has spluttered at reports that Oxford English faculty are considering reducing the volume of Shakespeare studied by undergraduates. Currently the Bard has an entire compulsory finals course to himself, and students are required to master the complete works. Commentators present this as another example of dumbing down. But one suspects that in reality they perceive any reduction of worship at the Stratford shrine as somehow antipatriotic.

No one would deny the greatness of the Swan of Avon, but his beatification as the pinnacle of English literature is strongly associated with periods of extreme nationalism. The peaks of Bardolatory were scaled in the post Napoleonic period, and then again during the Second World War, when Shakespeare was felt to embody the very idea of Englishness.

I have no inside knowledge of the curriculum discussions of the English faculty, and the department has issued a press release insisting that Shakespeare will continue to be central. But it does not seem unreasonable to challenge the dominance of a single author over one eighth of the whole course. What seems to underpin this skirmish is a controversy over the point of education. One view is that it is a essentially a kind of social glue, its primary purpose to inculcate the national culture into the young. The other sees it as a training in critical thought and the opportunity to become familiar with the best and latest thinking on a subject.

Education clearly has an important integrative role, and it is for this reason that Shakespeare should be taught in schools. But at university, surely the second rationale should be uppermost. And given that British university courses are already rather specialised, there can surely be no defence for devoting so much time to the slavish cultivation of a narrow canon. The proposal was merely to contextualise Shakespeare more fully among his fellow Renaissance dramatists. The Oxford history course no longer demands that one master the entire corpus of British history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present. This shift of attention to wider horizons has not brought about the collapse of British society.

In these increasingly global times, a cosmopolitan understanding of culture is infinitely more valuable than a curriculum devoted to nationalistic navel gazing. Doubtless the Bard himself would have bewailed the demise of Classics rather more than his own minor downgrading.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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