‘A babe is moulded': the influence of family on how children value Shakespeare

Posted December 7th, 2012 by Sylvia Morris and filed in Teaching approaches and techniques

From Sarah Olive, Lecturer in English in Education, University of York:

In my last article for Alluvium, I presented a rationale for using Lady Gaga to teach Shakespeare, along with a Powerpoint teaching resource. Sheffield Children’s Festival offered a unique chance to observe the transmission and contestation of cultural values around Shakespeare at an informal and diversely-attended occasion. In the Winter Gardens, on July 7, a group of twenty-four university researchers, from a range of disciplines, gathered to share their research with the general public. For a fuller report visit <http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/box-ideas-discover-children-learn-sheffield-1.193656>. I had planned two activities to involve the events’ visitors. Marker pens and post-it notes were handed out to those able to write so that they could record which pop artists they would like to see featured in the classroom and why – an acknowledgement that Gaga’s cultural currency is finite, and that the principle of pairing figures from popular culture with Early Modern drama is more important than the choice of individuals. Additionally, everyone passing by was invited to vote for the figure they would most like to see in the classroom, Gaga or Shakespeare. This was done by casting beads into two ‘ballot boxes’ decorated with their faces.

Any attempt at quantitative analysis of the results would be futile: some people were so enthusiastic that they voted multiple times; so committed that they meddled with the vote of a parent or sibling who shared a different view; or so passionate that they threw fistfuls of beads in at one go. More useful are efforts to characterise the voting patterns by demographic: most (but not all) adults voted for Shakespeare; the children’s votes were reasonably equally split, though with younger children less familiar with either figure, girls overwhelmingly voted for Gaga, boys for Shakespeare – suggesting that gender played a key role in their decision-making. Adults who did not vote for Shakespeare tended to comment on difficult experiences with him at school or university. Children who liked Shakespeare, on further investigation, tended to be involved in drama at or outside of school, so had some knowledge of his works and aspirations to play in them. Alternatively, they commented on the inspirational qualities of a teacher influencing their preference for Shakespeare. These patterns articulate the considerable role institutions have in shaping cultural values for (or against) Shakespeare. Discussion of his phenomenon can be found in existing literature including Graham Holderness’ The Shakespeare Myth, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare and, most recently, a dedicated issue of Shakespeare Survey (64) on Shakespeare as a cultural catalyst. Meanwhile, Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, offers wide-ranging evidence of the ways in which culture shapes education.

However, like Pierre Bourdieu and his many successors, I want to focus here on the role which family plays in determining the children’s cultural values. Participating in the activity described, often, a parent would take the lead in establishing a family identity or family values, with the aim that the child would adhere to those in making their choice. One woman commented as her teenage son voted (for Shakespeare): ‘We don’t like Lady Gaga in our family’, a thinly-veiled effort to ensure her son, in spite of any individual views he might have held, conformed to the family ‘project’. Others commented in approving retrospect on their child’s choice. For example, after an infant voted for Shakespeare, I commented on her age (or lack thereof) to which her mother replied: ‘that’s having a Mum who’s a teacher’. Her response reveals a conception of the privileged access to cultural and educational capital for children of parents’ in such careers, and an expectation on the parent’s part that her child will reflect and uphold her mother’s professional values. Another permutation in interactions was that a parent would offer a gentle reprimand if their child failed to uphold the family project, of acculturation and education: for instance, saying ‘We’ve got a Shakespeare book, haven’t we. I’d’ve thought you’d’ve gone for Shakespeare’.

In other families, there was opportunity for the individual family member’s values and Shakespeare’s worth to be contested as the decision was being made. On each occasion I witnessed this, it took the form of an older/more powerful family member asserting Shakespeare’s greatness: an older sister told her younger sister, ‘He’s written loads and what’s she done except sit on the beach in a bikini'; a grandma explained to her grandson, ‘She’s a pop star, he’s a big author’. In both cases, the younger family member was not conscious of having encountered Shakespeare elsewhere. As such, they were being conditioned into privileging him on a cultural hierarchy over another candidate with whom they were familiar, before ever experiencing a performance or text of his work. This is a common element of much childrearing: children are constantly told what is good or bad for them and are expected to accept this on trust, without empirical experience: ‘eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes’, ‘don’t touch that, it’s hot’. Such instruction plays a valuable part in children’s health and well-being. What interests me here is the extension of its application to culture, hardly, one might think, a matter of life or death. Yet Shakespeare is seemingly constructed as a player in an aspirational, cultural/educational survival of the fittest: the sooner you know him and acknowledge his superiority, the better your future. Nonetheless, the targets of this instruction frequently contested the assertions they were subject to, gleefully throwing their bead into Gaga’s box. Occasionally, such interference was explicitly resisted as resulting in a kind of cheating, or untruthfulness – one boy commented, ‘Mu-um, you have to go with what you know’. In addition to this, I noticed one child engaging in a struggle with a parent (not to mention the curriculum) over the relative value of different cultural forms: Mum: ‘He wrote all those plays‘, Daughter: ‘She’s a really good singer‘. For this girl, a shelf full of plays did not trump vocal skill.

Adults tended to justify their vote more than children. This might be explained by their generally greater confidence, articulateness, and sense of responsibility (to be a good parent, good citizen, good example). One girl, however, taking her time weighing up the pros and cons of Shakespeare and Gaga voiced her opinion that Shakespeare’s ‘making up lies’ about Richard III’s physique and murder of the princes in the Tower was going against him. She was already having a sophisticated internal dialogue about these artists’ relative merits, and being given space to do so. Interestingly, she eventually voted by placing one bead in each of the boxes, affirming their equal value in her eyes. You could argue that I should have held her to a rule of one vote only, forced her to make a choice – but, out of all the people I encountered that day, she alone had hit on the argument that both their creativities should be celebrated in our culture and education system. She demonstrated a belief that there is room in the classroom for both traditional and emergent icons, plays and popular music.

As anecdotal and ungeneralisable as this data is, the exercise highlighted for me the vital role of the family in shaping the value of Shakespeare, before peers, external institutions and the media play their part. The majority of research on Shakespeare in education and society starts with school-age children, although there is work that looks at ways in which children are engaged with Shakespeare by fiction and theatre. This includes Naomi Miller’s edited collection Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, Joe Winston and Miles Tandy’s Beginning Shakespeare 4-11 and the RSC and Oily Cart’s 2012 production of The Winter’s Tale/In a pickle for toddlers.  Elsewhere, the formative influence of the family has been analysed in relation to arenas ranging from literacy (Denny Taylor and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines’s Growing up Literate) to diet (Peter Jackson’s Changing Families, Changing Foods). Sociology, education and childhood studies offer fruitful models for future explorations of the influence of the family on children’s conceptions of Shakespeare. I would certainly consider setting such a topic for an undergraduate dissertation for my programme (the B.A. English in Education) next year.

Works cited:
Bruner, J. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.

Dollimore, J. and A. Sinfield (eds). Political Shakespeare: new essays in cultural materialism.        Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.

Holderness, G. (ed). The Shakespeare Myth. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.

Holland, P. (ed). Shakespeare Survey 64. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Miller, N. (ed). Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults. London: Routledge, 2003.

Jackson, P. (ed). Changing Families, Changing Foods. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Taylor, D. and C. Dorsey-Gaines. Growing up Literate. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Winston, J. and M. Tandy. Beginning Shakespeare 4-11. London: Routledge, 2012.


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