Ronald Toppin’s recent off-the-cuff remark in Parliament that he could see no justification for secondary school children to study English literature, including Shakespeare, has drawn enough ire.
In all fairness to Mr Toppin, he was making the case for teaching our young people more marketable skills. He just expressed himself badly. After all, studying Shakespeare certainly won’t get you a job as an electrician or a computer programmer.
So indeed why study Shakespeare? Or the humanities for that matter?
This is not a question raised only in Barbados, but also in many parts of the world including the United States, where politicians have been calling for greater emphasis on maths, engineering and the sciences.
But the call for our school and university curricula to be changed to reflect the skills required in the jobs market, comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between education and skills training.
I recall when in my previous capacity as head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we were recruiting people to serve in the ministry, what we were really looking for in the candidates was not the specific skills associated with diplomacy: languages, negotiating expertise, knowledge of the global dynamics of tourism and international business, meeting management, speech writing, knowledge of international relations, protocol and so on. Of course, candidates having one or more of these skills had an advantage going into the interview. That was a bonus.
But these were skills we could teach on the job or by sending someone off on many of the short-term (two to six weeks) intensive training courses offered free of cost by international organizations or foreign governments.
We rated general intellectual competencies higher than specific skills.
In essence, we were looking for critical thinking (the ability to analyse and evaluate various issues), the ability to summarize intelligently and accurately, the ability to write simple coherent sentences in a logical sequence (we gave written tests), evidence of reading, creativity, and attitude, attitude, attitude.
Apart from attitude, which is a moral attribute of one’s personality, all the other intellectual abilities were the result of a disciplined secondary and tertiary education, whether it was in the sciences, social sciences or humanities.
That is what education, from the primary to the tertiary, is all about. It’s an intellectual discipline. Of course, a student acquires skills in the course of her education, but the intellectual competencies are the primary focus.
The demand for specific skills will always vary; so you cannot educate for skills. You educate the mind; you train for skills.
Now, that isn’t saying that everyone who has a university degree, even in the humanities, can write well or think analytically; but that is a reflection of the university from which they graduated. Universities must insist on basic intellectual competencies regardless of what is being studied.
Obviously, people need specific technical skills for specific jobs. You would not want to spend three to four years at a university to become a plumber, carpenter, sales person, automotive mechanic or computer repair person. Indeed a university is not the best place to learn such skills.
So what we need in Barbados are many more training and vocational opportunities, including employer apprenticeships, at the post-secondary level for youngsters to acquire specific marketable skills in a relatively short time, and at relatively little expense.
Most of our youngsters are acquiring digital skills by playing video games, using smartphones and social media and learning about website construction and other such matters from the Internet. We should encourage this, not fear it. Indeed digital literacy should begin as early as primary school, especially to overcome the digital divide between rich and poor.
In Barbados we face not just the digital divide but the literacy divide, in which children from homes without someone reading to them, or at least encouraging them to read, can go through primary and secondary schools without learning to read and write properly.
If we are to succeed as a knowledge economy, we must make public investments in free preschools/educational day care, and in remedial education at both primary and secondary level. The schools at the bottom of the Common Entrance pyramid have an inordinate intake of students with poor literacy and numeracy, but not the resources
nor the curriculum authorization to engage in remedial education.
The Common Entrance Exam is a proven nonsense, but Bajans are as reluctant to abandon that as to let go the apron strings of the English monarchy. We’re a peculiar people.
Finally to Shakespeare. He who was a brilliant popular entertainer in his time has now become an icon of high culture. The theatre in Shakespeare’s time was the most popular form of mass entertainment. The typical audience was some two or three thousand, largely middle and working class people, eating, drinking and occasionally heckling.
Why study Shakespeare?
Simply because he’s the best. He’s the best playwright in any language. He’s the best writer in the English language.
He gives us unexpected insights into life. He depicts the suffering and joy, the hopes and fears we all experience. He also keeps nudging us to ask what it is we value in ourselves and others? Why are we here? What is it all about? Most important of all, he makes us see that our common humanity is far more important than the national, ethnic, religious and other differences of circumstance that divide us.
In one sense Shakespeare is very much our contemporary: he lived in a time of shattering upheaval, when many certainties seemed to have been swept away, much like our own times. In his plays he manages to capture and convey the excitement and dread of what it means to live in the bewildering space between a known past and a murky future.
If I were on a desert island and had a choice of one book it would be the collected works of Shakespeare. Simply put, he entertains us, and educates both our mind and soul.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbadian diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)