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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shakespeare, because he is very good (some even say, the best), is a challenge to teach in school. But it would be a shame to give up. This is not because students would learn practical English from him: knowing what incarnadine means will be of no use, of course, in a modern hospital, shopping mall or space centre. But to have Macbeth’s soliloquies or Banquo’s ghost as part of their mental furniture, and the pure rigour of working through a classic, would surely make more interesting — and therefore, in the fullest sense, better — doctors, retailers or rocket scientists of school-leavers. And the hard work should enrich the teachers too. So it would be a pity, a fundamental and irreversible lowering of academic standards, if the pleasures and challenges of the English syllabus for the Indian School Certificate Examinations were levelled down for the sake of the students’ careers in the sciences and technology.

The last couple of years of school are perhaps the last years of education in the most ideal, and idyllic, sense of the word. This is when students can immerse themselves in the delights and difficulty of learning for its own sake — and for the sake of a certain idea of wholeness. And however impractical and useless this may sound in the longer run, that idea is well worth holding on to before it fades into the light of common day. All other spheres of higher secondary education should make room for it, however urgent and immediate their demands. Ensuring a high standard of English teaching from the earliest stages, paying English teachers well so that the best minds are drawn to the profession, and investing in a range of library and audio-visual resources to supplement classroom teaching are other ways of dealing with the crisis. Also, it does not require much effort and ingenuity to present Shakespeare as a contemporary to teenagers. But Hardy and Shaw may have begun to feel somewhat remote, linguistically as well as in what they have written about. So, a bit of intelligent updating, without dumbing down the syllabus, might be an idea. There is a whole world of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry in the English language (not necessarily as used in Britain or America) to choose from. But to cut ISC English down to an easily chewable form for the sake of practicality would amount to admitting the worst sort of defeat.