by Julia Steiny
Ah, the restorative powers of great art.
Too bad classical art is so hard to enjoy without understanding the historical context and culture of the time. It’s difficult just to imagine people who knew nothing of TV and cell phones.
Trinity Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was a stunner. The old king howled his wrath when his truly devoted daughter refused to fawn over him in public, as his ego demanded. In a drenching, on-stage rainstorm storm, distraught characters reacted passionately, with famous lines of poetry, to what we could all see in front of us. Blood spurted from Gloucester’s eyes during the on-stage blinding. And when the king realized what he’d done, his grief was massive. Three jaw-dropping hours flew by.
But Lear is a tough play for an advertising-saturated audience hundreds of years away from the original production. It was written for people with patience, people who pictured scenes in their heads as they listened, instead of seeing each cinematic detail.
Now, instant gratification dulls our taste for a long view. Entertainment is king, and courses in Art Appreciation have gone the way of Home Economics. Ever fewer people — well, I can only speak for Americans — can appreciate how thrilling great classical art can be.
The beauty of the classics is not so much in the eyes of the beholder as in the eyes of the educated.
Which is one of the reasons that the new national curriculum standards, called the Common Core, are so upsetting.
The Core’s English Language Arts standards shift much of the focus from literature to non-fiction, or what they call, “informational text.” The very phrase makes my skin crawl. And yet, the Core’s defenders are correct when they argue that far too few students know how to extract facts out of history and science books — never mind the contracts and fine print they’ll encounter as adults.
The Core’s publicists emphasize that the attention given to informational text is only a starting point, a base from which educators can build. Their goal, in their words, is “to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.” Presumably, once kids have mastered mining facts, their teachers can then build up students’ backgrounds so they can enjoy the rich language of Charles Dickens or George Eliot. Not that teachers assign much of that sort of work any more.
The new Common Core will lead to a huge battery of new tests — a controversy in its own right, but for another day. The tests will be online, which will be a relief to educators who want results right away. The faster the results, the faster teachers can adjust their lessons to improve the next round of results. Students will read and analyze several documents to write extended answers. or mini-essays. But computer-scored tests make it all the more important to get the facts, grammar and punctuation right, according to a computer’s understanding. Currently forty-five states have signed on to the project.
Curiously, among them is Massachusetts. Pundits and researchers ask why on earth that that state would bother with the Common Core when its own standards are by all accounts far superior, very successful and steeped in literature.
Many of us think that teaching great literature well — not drearily — will produce the intellectual curiosity and broad background that will also, oh by the way, improve the over-valued test scores.
As it happens, I was a professor of theater arts in a prior life. So at Lear the other night, while settling into our seats, my companion asked me to give her the “Cliff Notes” on the play. Okay. Both the main plot, about Lear, and the sub-plot, about his friend the Earl of Gloucester, are stories about parents who misjudge their children.
A fun trick with Shakespeare and his contemporaries is to peel back the characters’ names to find allegorical clues to the theme and structure of the play. When I taught college, I loved telling students that Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, was named after a venereal disease. Regan is just an echo of her sister. And at the center of the play is the ideal heart, Cordelia — coeur is French for heart, and “delia” is a favorite Shakespearean anagram for “ideal.”
Then I’d ask my female students: When you walk past a construction site, what do the male workers do? They’d answer that they whistle, hoot, and make rude noises. But inevitably, the student trying to figure out where the teacher lady was going would exclaim “leer.” Bingo. They leer.
Ah, so the play is about sight — insight, clear versus rain-pelted vision, blindness. Excruciatingly, Lear finally sees that he’s rejected the true love of his adoring daughter.
Just because we reviewed a bit of cultural background, both my friend and I clearly heard every word of the dialogue that exalted the virtues of clear sightedness. Especially seeing love clearly. That life lesson can not be rendered into informational text.
This new focus on non-fiction is about improving the quality of workers for the economy.
But I’m betting that our money-skewed vision is blinding us to what it means to be truly educated, with a culturally big and historically rich background.
So beware the Common Core.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.