I came across a news article today that said a recent study found that one-third of British students didn’t know who Shakespeare was. I was immediately incredulous because frankly most journalists are terrible at covering scientific studies, so I decided to give it a closer read.
Basically, the study gave 1,000 students aged 11 to 18 a list of thirteen names and asked them to identify the playwrights. One in three students was unable to identify Shakespeare as a playwright. That percentage increased to one half when only looking at the grammar school students.
Before getting into why I still find these statistics concerning, I want to address my concerns over the nature of the study:
First of all, the sample size is far too small to make such sweeping judgments. These 1,000 students cannot with any certainty represent the entire school population of Britain. With a sample size that small, it is easier for errors in methodology or data collection to have a significant impact on the results. Secondly, there was no information provided on how the students were selected, which could make a huge difference. Were they representative of the student population? This would mean having students from different schools, locations, and socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the actual study to look more closely at the methodology. This impacted my third and final concern which is that I do not know exactly how the instructions were phrased. That wording could make all the difference in the world. If it was even the slightest bit unclear, that could have a major effect on the results.
Okay, now that all of those points are out of the way, let’s get to why I still find these results concerning:
I was unsurprised that the younger students were more likely to not identify Shakespeare as a playwright. I can’t speak with certainty about the curriculum in Great Britain, but here in America we tend to reserve Shakespeare for High School (secondary school), which is dumb. It’s the whole reason I have this blog. Shakespeare has slowly been turned into this monolithic figure that only the brightest among us can manage to understand. I quite simply don’t believe this to be true. Certainly, the man was a remarkable writer with an undeniable talent for illustrating the human experience. However, we are all human, so we can all connect with his writing if it is presented in the right way.
Unfortunately, as a society, we tend to undervalue arts education. This same study found that approximately half of the students had never been to see a play as a part of their school curriculum. That is extremely sad to me. Having the experience of going to a play and engaging with the text in invaluable. Performance is what brings Shakespeare to life and too many of our students are missing out on that one-of-a-kind experience. By removing these creative experiences from education, we are ensuring that society will continue to devalue the arts.
Creative endeavors, such as plays, provide the opportunity for us to connect with ourselves. Arts in all forms can create an emotional catharsis, whether directly (such as with painting or writing) or indirectly (such as with performance). The reason we still read and perform Shakespeare today is because he wrote characters that spoke to the most basic human experiences. It doesn’t matter that these characters were written over 400 years ago, we can still relate to what they are feeling. As children work through their own emotions and try to find their own place in the world, having something that can put their experiences into words can be critical to their emotional development. In addition, being exposed to a wide variety of characters can make for a more empathetic population, which I think we can all agree the world needs right now.
The results of this study break my heart, which is why I sincerely hope the study was flawed. For students to miss out on Shakespeare and the benefits of any performance art is tragic. We need to look at results like this and reflect on why we undervalue arts education and start having a better appreciation for the “soft” skills in life.