Classical music appears to be the last bastion of the traditional art. It is not that composers are not still making new music in new ways, it is not that innovations are not being made, it is not that music is dead. It is simply that musicians are still expected to study what went before.
Musicians still routinely learn pieces written hundreds of years ago.
I studied fine art for three years, and the one thing I never really got was any schooling in the history of art, certainly not beyond a dozen lectures in my first year. None of my classmates was interested in anything outside of what they were doing and the artists that directly influenced them, all of whom were either still alive or very recently deceased. There seemed to me to be no broader context for the work the students were making, and, as a consequence, I thought very little of it terribly interesting.
The same, sadly, is true of the study of our literature.
Not only are undergraduate degrees now available in Creative Writing (and you all know my views on that), but dead writers don’t seem to feature on the curriculum in secondary schools, either. Why teach Shakespeare and Chaucer when you can teach de Bernieres or Frayn? I have nothing against those two gentlemen, albeit Smith (Zadie) and Waters (Sarah) might be my preferred choices, but I can’t help thinking that if you asked any or all of those four fine writers they’d agree that it couldn’t hurt to give kids something proven to read, some of the stuff that they, in fact, read when they were kids.
The problem, as I see it, is that Shakespeare and Chaucer are difficult.
Well... You know what? Everything worth having and everything worth knowing, and everything worth anything is, to some degree difficult; that, at least in part, is what gives it value and meaning. That is what elevates it beyond the ordinary.
We do not offer our students that which is difficult so that we do not disappoint them when they fail, but what about the kids that will rise to the challenge? What about the kids who won’t fail? What about the kids who want the opportunity to go the extra mile? And for all those kids who fail? Well, you’re doing them a favour too.
Some of you might be cynical enough to believe that our teachers might not be up to the task of teaching that which is difficult. I have more faith in them than that.
Could we just have a go, for once, at raising all of our expectations. I’m the first to admit that not all of them will be met, but it doesn’t matter how low our expectations are, there’s always someone, somewhere willing to duck under them.
Let’s not turn this into the World’s most disastrous limbo dance, shall we?