Children need to learn to think, to make connections, to work together, to take risks, to discover their own talents. They need to read about all kinds of things and explore different media. They need a curriculum that is broad, balanced and differentiated.1
Born in 1564, and so thirty years younger than his Queen, the young William Shakespeare was eight when he was admitted to the recently formed Edward VI Grammar School2 in his home town of Stratford-on-Avon. This was just two years after the publication of Ascham’s “The Scholemaster”. Stratford was a typical market town of some two thousand people ─ small enough for most people to know each other’s business. The young William was one of nature’s survivors; usually twenty percent of babies died within a year of their birth, while some two hundred and thirty-seven people died of the plague in Stratford that year. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a relatively prosperous glove maker (of which there were twenty-three in the town) who had several other interests: he had a share in a farm, he bought and sold wool and barley, he brewed beer and he was a money lender. Astute businessman as he was, John Shakespeare could not actually read3.
William’s mother, Mary4, came from a respectable family of working farmers with pretensions to gentility. We know her to have been dependable, practical, intelligent, quick-witted, and a good manager of the household. That household included John’s workshop in which two apprentices worked, and to which came the customers. John prospered and by the time William was four his father had been elected mayor, and his little son would have been expected to sit with his parents in the front pew of the parish church every Sunday listening to the vigorous language of the Bible as recently translated into English.
William was inquisitive, energetic, and exuberant, and had inherited his mother’s quickness. It seemed that he knew all the fields, woodlands and rivers within a day’s walk of his home. Later in his plays and poetry Shakespeare lists no fewer than sixty species of birds, and a remarkable hundred and eighty different plants5. He knew the significant characteristics of the seasons, the nature of floods, storms, sunshine and the light of the moon. He knew the techniques of many craftsmen and from his father’s apprentices he learnt different ways of curing leather. By the age of eight his mastery of spoken and written English was sufficient for him to have been one of the five or six boys admitted that year to the grammar school where he would have learnt, over the next five years, to conjugate Latin verbs and to decline nouns, and the eight parts of speech6. Having mastered sentence construction, and the rigorous art of paraphrasing, he would have moved on to the study of Aesop’s Fables and then to the writings of Ovid, Seneca and Juvenal7. He probably studied the diaries of Julius Caesar in the same way as had St. Patrick a thousand years before, and still did English grammar school boys almost 300 years later in the 1950s8. Of mathematics, history or any of the sciences there was simply none in the curriculum, but William ─ as with many thousands of his contemporaries ─ knew much about all such topics for they were the stuff of everyday conversation in the challenging, unquestioning world of craftsmen and apprentice that made up such a vibrant market town. In later years was William, by then a well-known playwright, describing himself as he wrote of the adolescent with “boiled brains”, interested in nothing but “getting wench with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”?
If England had invented Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education)9 four hundred years before, a government inspector would have had to conclude that Shakespeare had indeed experienced ‘a full, broad, balanced and exceptionally well differentiated’ curriculum. Nevertheless, he would have been forced to admit that this was primarily due to the multiple challenges and excitement of living within a community where children mattered, where there was a culture of voice not print, and where all the facets of every day life were visible. Schooling simply supplemented the youngster’s personal experience; it created a structure for mental development, but it certainly did not suffocate the youngster’s sense for working things out for themselves.
A twenty-first century inspector might have concluded that Shakespeare’s school teachers, Simon Hunt and Thomas Jenkins, were too tied to an old-fashioned pedagogy, were not conversant enough with the affairs of the world, and maybe too ‘academic’ in their approach to the emerging needs of the seventeenth century. Despite such a theoretical dismissal, this young student who preferred chasing deer and exploring the greenwood and who died at the comparatively early age of fifty-two in 1616, became the greatest playwright the world has ever known. He didn’t, as Mark Twain10 was later to write in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ever let his schooling get him down.
Thesis 30: 24th August 2006