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Shakespeare in South Africa: Shakespeare in Education

Shakespeare in South Africa -- page 8

Shakespeare in education

Shakespeare has been deployed strenuously in South African education from colonial days onward, with ambiguous results. On the one hand he has proved more popular than many of the dramatic alternatives. On the other, there is the pedagogical oddity of prescribing a particular work in what is virtually another language to learners for whom English is probably a second, third or fourth language. The issue has been much debated.

Shakespeare's future in the South African education system is less than certain. To date there is no sign of him disappearing from the school syllabus as an option ñ and it is important to note that Shakespeare has not been compulsory since the early 1980s. He is popular with many teachers for both good and bad reasons. The good reasons include the high quality of the learning opportunities that can be created with Shakespeare in the hands of energetic and skilled teachers. The bad reasons include the ease with which a standard Shakespeare prescription can lead to zero levels of innovation and preparation on the part of lazy teachers, and the equal ease with which egotistical pedants can indulge themselves in the gratifying role of privileged mediators of esoteric background knowledge to hapless initiates, at the expense of experiencing the plays.

Surveys have shown that Shakespeare retains a degree of prestige among teachers and learners (cf, Lemmer 1988; Mullineaux 1998; Rasana 2002), and some teachers report informally that the recent spate of Hollywood films (notably the Branagh Much Ado (1993) and the Luhrmann Romeo+ Juliet (1996)) has lent him a degree of "street cred." with learners. A robust debate concerning the appropriateness of Shakespeare in school education took place in the educational journal Crux in the mid-1980s (see Hacksley 1992); and a briefer Shakespearean spat formed part of a more general public fuss over school literature prescriptions in Gauteng Province early in 2001.If anything, the public response in the press was more vehemently pro-Shakespeare in the latter instance, though there must always be an element of educational caution when additional language speakers attempt 400 year-old plays from a foreign culture.

Two recent school series have had a significant impact on the Shakespeare in South African schools. The first is the Macmillan Communicative Shakespeare Series, developed in the early 1990s, which focuses on the Shakespeare text as a blueprint for performance; the second is the Active Shakespeare Series (published by Maskew Miller Longman and greatly influenced by the former), which has thinner support for the additional language learner, and is less ambitious in its educational aims. Both series are influenced by communicative language learning practices and the educational spin-off from reception theory, and stress the realization of the text as drama by emphasizing story and situation before working closely with Shakespeare's language.

The turmoil through which the South African school system is passing has very little to do with Shakespeare. Those parts of the system that are dysfunctional - and they are not only black schools formerly managed by the Department of Education and Training, the black educational authority under apartheid - are so not merely because of inappropriate curricula, poor teacher-training and resourcing, inadequate monitoring, and ineffectual governance and management (the legacy of apartheid), but because the modernisation process itself, a deep-lying social and cultural transformation, takes effect unevenly and according to parameters which are not amenable to smooth transition. Other parts of the system, and not merely the formerly whites-only schools, are performing spectacularly well. In all the turmoil of transformation, Shakespeare really is not a hot issue.

The real challenge for Shakespeare studies in South Africa lies in the universities, and concerns their capacity to reproduce the next generation of scholars. Shakespeare is still there in university curricula, though he is certainly less prominent. Few young researchers will focus on early modern Europe if they hope to make a career in Africa. This may even imply a return to full dependency on metropolitan scholarship in the long term, if indeed Shakespeare continues to be taught in the universities. The productive research population in South African universities, across the disciplines, is largely white, ageing and male. The younger generation, particularly children of the newly-enfranchised middle classes, has ready access to high-status jobs with swift promotion prospects in the central economy. Why opt for a poorly remunerated life of scholarship? There are exceptions, and strenuous efforts at research capacity development are under way, but probably only the next generation, those for whom affluence has become normal, will be naturally attracted to academia. And when they do rediscover the academic life, will Shakespeare be on the South African research agenda?


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