Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Here I go again!

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?


  1. I was about to say something along the lines of, "of course they still teach it! I studied Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, Dickens etc when I was in school!" but then realised that was 14 - 19 years ago.

    I feel old.

    As an aside, though, I always felt they taught the wrong Shakespeare at school. I didn't touch Othello until I was 18, and Iago remains, in my mind at least, as one of the most perfectly evil villains ever created. Emilia... she is possibly one of my favourite female characters ever, even if her role is only a supporting, but ultiately critical, one. In fact everything about that play fascinates me, and I didn't even study it in depth. I never understood why it wasn't taught at GCSE level, to be honest.

    We first studied Macbeth when we were 11, and considering I went to a rough school in a not so great part of the world, I can't remember a single one of my classmates ever complaining when we worked on that play in English Lit.

    Fast forward to A level and to Chaucer, well, translating it over into modern english was challenging at times, but our whole English class thoroughly enjoyed that module.

    Mastering a complicated play or book, that lightbulb moment when you can finally, truly, make sense of what is happening and appreciate how the writer has conveyed it to you ("be not afraid, this isle is full of voices...") is a wonderful feeling, regardless of your underlying "ability", and in a lot of wys think it is easier to relate to the past than to a present-day text.

    Which is a long winded way of saying, "I agree with you".

  2. Hear hear...

    Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution: