It is fashionable for snooty liberals like me to say that “the classics” are no longer relevant in education. Aren’t those just a bunch of boring books written by dead white guys, with no significance whatsoever for today’s youth? What could a young black girl in a South African township ever get from reading Hamlet? Surely, there are better things she could be doing.
Except, whenever I hear those complaints, there seems to be a disconcerting undertone: Come on, they seem to say, Hamlet is so hard. You can’t expect kids today to struggle that hard to read something with so many difficult words, which is so foreign to them. How can you possibly expect them to understand it?
I can quite easily expect them to understand it, and to relate to it, and to derive immense value from it.
I expect them to understand it because they are smart, and they are capable, and they are hard working. I expect them to relate to it because people are people, and the human condition is common to both 16th century England and 21st century South Africa. And I expect them to gain value from it because there is value there to be gained, and because these beautiful works of literature have enriched thousands of lives across the world for centuries. There is no reason today’s youth should be any different.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying they should only read Shakespeare and other “classics.” Great literature is being written today, too. I would stack Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun up with anything I’ve ever read by Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Dickens.
There is also value in reading local, culturally-relevant literature. All children, regardless of social and cultural background, should read stories from authors who look like them, speak like them, and reflect their reality. They should also read authors who do none of those things.
I recall an interview we did with a Grade 6 scholar after our first holiday programme, in 2012. We asked him what his favourite school activity was. “Independent reading,” he said. “Because I get to go on adventures.”
Among education’s highest goals is to unveil the world’s beauty. As a student gains understanding and knowledge, previously unknown or unappreciated beauty all of a sudden becomes available. The wonder with which a physicist admires Einstein’s discoveries or a mathematician venerates the simple mathematical beauty of nature does not derive from their own nerdy peculiarities. They admire this beauty because they see the beauty, where most of us are blind to it. There is sublime poetry written in Mandarin that would surely enrich my life, were I to appreciate it—but I never will, because I do not speak or read Mandarin, and have no plans to learn.
Hamlet also contains immense beauty and the capacity to enrich a person’s life. If it hasn’t enriched your life, I’m sorry to hear that. But that’s not Hamlet’s fault. It has enriched the lives of thousands—perhaps millions—of people, over the course of hundreds of years, across the entire world.
There is no reason why our African students should not have the same opportunity. But wait! Didn’t you say to focus on what’s important? Isn’t poetry a luxury? Well, maybe, to the extent that going to school full time and devoting all of your time to your own learning is an extraordinary luxury. But as long as we have schools, no, it should not be a luxury. It should be expected. Opening the eyes of the student to the world’s beauty is arguably a school’s most important function.
Two years ago, when the Ashoka Changemaker Schools group was considering adding ASE to its global network, they asked to interview a “changemaker team,” including a student. We brought along a girl in Grade 8, named Tebogo. Toward the end of the discussion, the interviewer turned to Tebogo and asked her what her favourite book was.
“Macbeth,” she said, without hesitating. “Right now we’re reading Nervous Conditions, which is okay,” (by the way, she undersold Nervous Conditions, a very good novel by Tsitsi Dangerembga) “but it’s not as exciting as Macbeth.”
Please do not try to tell her that African children cannot appreciate Shakespeare.