Festivities are going on around Britain today to celebrate the bicentenary of one of our greatest authors, Charles Dickens. But leading Dickens biographer, Claire Tomalin, whose recent work Charles Dickens: A Life narrowly missed out on the Costa Book Awards biography prize, has controversially come forward to complain that British children are missing out on Dickens’s works. She claims that education is being dumbed down, with children “being reared on dreadful television programs”, to such an extent that the attention span of UK students is no longer adequate to allow them to tackle Dickensian novels.
Similar claims have been made in recent years about other famous British authors like Shakespeare, with the teaching of literary greats becoming more and more simplistic and some pupils even reporting being taught modern versions like ‘No Fear Shakespeare’, which ‘dumb down’ Shakespeare’s language for today’s Facebook generation. In some cases, children have even been shown films like Baz Luhrnman’s modernized Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo Di Caprio, rather than reading Shakespeare’s original text.
Some claim that these techniques popularise Shakespeare, keeping the famous plays relevant to modern audiences and preventing them from ‘dying out’ or being left behind by modern teenagers, who are likely to see stuffy, old-fashioned literature as ‘uncool’ and ‘boring’. But the amount of artistic value and meaning that is stripped brutally away by ‘translating’ lines like Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy to No Fear’s over-simplistic “The question is, is it better to be alive or dead?” cannot be underestimated. Tomalin claims that today’s pupils simply do not have the necessary attention span to cope with the complex and dense prose of classic authors like Dickens. But if they are really unable to tackle the works in their original form, it would surely be better for them to focus on some other, more accessible forms of literature rather than stripping away the beauty of our greatest writers by reducing their works to hackneyed colloquial translations. (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” is painfully reduced to “But wait, what’s that light in the window over there?”)
But surely all this talk of abandoning the great writers comes from an assumption that it is today’s young people who are somehow too stupid or too cool and modern to be able to appreciate them. What about questioning why today’s teachers aren’t able to teach the texts in an interesting and complex enough way to capture the imaginations of their students? With GCSE and A level results soaring to ever greater records with each consecutive year, one wonders what actual improvements we can possibly be achieving in our education system if we are simply throwing up our hands and deciding that the most beautiful literature our country has ever produced is just a bit too tricky for today’s pupils to tackle.
And since when does the UK curriculum bend agreeably to the will of a grumpy teenage cohort? If a physics lesson were beset by the general outcry that electricity and magnetism was boring, the teacher would have to teach these essential topics regardless. Is literature considered so wishy-washy or unimportant a subject that we will choose to amend and simplify the contents of English lessons simply because some students are reluctant to put in the effort to read something difficult?
It is this kind of spineless capitulation to modern ‘coolness’ and the digital generation on the part of teachers and schools that is denying our children the right to become truly acquainted with the works of the great authors, not an inherent academic inability to learn.