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Lost or Shakespeare?

April 15th, 2009

Lost or Shakespeare, that is the question. I watched my first episode on Wednesday 8th April and it started well. A bald and sweaty man, looking a fair bit like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, was lowered down a well. Aha, I thought, as he descended into the gloom, an allusion: into the heart of darkness. A light flared and the well closed up. A bit of grief resulted, then headaches stopped and noses stopped bleeding. The well re-appeared but was full of dirt.

A kind of wicker man was briefly seen. Mr Kurtz had apparently successfully turned a wheel underground to stop the headaches. Above ground, by the well, a man named Jim seemed to be suffering the most volubly, in a terse kind of way, staking a strong early claim as the main character.

Half an hour later we’d been back and forth in time by three years twice, two men had been shot, a woman had given birth, someone had got drunk and blown up some dynamite. There were sore heads again.

Jim was the central character in this episode. Talking in two sentence bursts, he is hairy, sweaty and disgruntled. His character is further characterised by using quaint words like, doozy, boss and chief. Jim and a blonde named Juliet watch each others’ backs. She’s a good shot, kills two men from 30 metres with a rifle, two men who put a hood over a struggling woman.

The best scene for me: the woman in the hood, who was saved by Jim’s yelling and the Juliet’s good shooting, leads her saviours through a sonic fence. They fall about with sore heads again and she blithely removes ear plugs. Is she a criminal? That might explain the hood. Some ambiguity and mystery, then, but it was hard for me to care if anyone got up from their sore heads this time. Still, it takes a while to be drawn into anything.

After the ads came a section which lost me, which seemed uniquely Lostian and a point of difference from other shows, the part of it which makes it worthy of study. There were puzzling references to earlier episodes. A long haired man in grey overalls talked about a fence. A dark haired man in blue overalls called Richard wanted the two dead bodies dug up for some reason. A cymbal bonged. The name John Locke was said ominously, as was The Dharma Initiative. There must be justice for the dead men. There was tension music. Time was mentioned. News came that a sub was leaving the island. French horns, strings.

Juliet told Jim (she calls him James) that she will leave in two weeks on the sub (after three years on the island). No more bloody noses. But who will keep Jim’s back? He needs two more weeks! Piano, strings, moonlight on the water. She granted his request.

Three years later: sun, fresh shirts, fresh veggies, combed hair, Jim walking into domestic bliss. Strings strengthened. The blonde and he embraced, complimented each other tersely as they held a sunflower. “I love you.” “I love you, too.”

Jim sat by the bed of the man in grey overalls who was letting off dynamite previously. What was Jim reading? The man woke up and Jim told him he’s a daddy! Strings. He explained the reason why he got drunk. Something about a dead man (I missed this bit because the phone rang). Jim spoke (to string accompaniment) about regret, about a girl. Memories, he said, meaningfully, they fade.

Jim and Juliet were in bed, spooning rigidly, when the phone rang. Jim answered and was disconcerted. He drove a blue jeep to a peninsula and met a blue combi driven by blue clothed people. Strings. Jim’s hair wafted. He removed spectacles he had not worn once until this scene. Evangeline Lily (I know my Woman’s Day), wearing a singlet, looked meaningfully at him. Credits.

If you’re still reading this blog, you will know that I found Lost pretty silly, from the characterisation down to the over lush soundtrack which sounded portentous and pretentious to me because the two-dimensional characters don’t elicit empathy. The banks of violins were like a canned laugh track in an unfunny comedy, drawing attention to exactly what was missing: in this case emotional drama.

I think that the reason characters like these become engaging is because we watch them unselfconsciously so much − more than we watch the people we know in real life. Over the years we come to know these characters physically in quite an intimate way. Their mannerisms, the way they move and the way they speak are wired into our bodies. In this way their appeal basically works on the same level as people on reality TV (except people on reality TV are more animated and interact in a more fluid way).

Lost is not reality TV. Inexplicable and impossible things happen and people act woodenly. And it’s been running for five years. The result of all the esoteric knowledge abut Lost on the internet seems to be largely a result of the show’s long run and the natural accruement of events which can be recalled. The knowledge being generated here says things about Lost rather than life. This is the difference between Shakespeare (or any other classic literature) and Lost. Great literature says something about life (as well as having special qualities in itself which make it literature), but Lost is just saying things about itself.

Lost may be groundbreaking in its self reflexivity, or intratextuality, but I seriously question the coherence or significance of what it says about itself. The pieces of the jigsaw (though fun) often seem arbitrary and essentially trivial. It is of interest in what it is rather than what it says.

I’m making a lot of claims after watching one episode, but I think that if Lost is to be studied it should be from a cultural/technological angle. The TV series is notable as the generator of a new kind of interactive cyber puzzling community. But could someone do it better than this, harness this new internet interaction? What’s David Lynch doing? A sudden thought! Have I completely missed the point? Is the corniness in Lost intentional and celebrated by its fans, like at a strange movie festival?

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O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright!*

February 26th, 2009

I’ve just read two shifting thinking blogposts about Shakespeare, one by Jane and one by Jim, and it’s inspired me to segue to a favourite topic of mine: Television.

From Shakespeare to Television? That’s a bit of a plummet isn’t it, from the heights of Western literary culture, to the morass of mass stupefication?

Not so! At least not the way I’d like to approach it. Here’s what I’m interested in – looking at fictional stories from television (or books, or film) and deconstructing these to examine some ideas about:
- how they represent how schooling/education “is”
- what they say about how we think schooling/education “should be”
- and (if I can find some good examples) what kinds of possible futures they can help us to imagine for schooling, learning, and education.

I’ve chosen my first television show/character to discuss: Loretta West from the utterly brilliant New Zealand TV series Outrageous Fortune. The show is a refreshingly original comedy/drama that is unashamedly grounded in kiwi (or perhaps more accurately, the mythological “Westie” – West Auckland) culture, language, and humour.

When Outrageous Fortune begins (season 1 started in 2005), Loretta is 15 years old and a student at Shadbolt High. The youngest child of Cheryl and Wolfgang West, Loretta has grown up in a family that makes a living on the wrong side of the law – through burglaries, break-ins, car conversions, robberies, and otherwise dodgy deals orchestrated by her father, usually aided and abetted by at least one of her older twin brothers. However, at the beginning of season 1, all this starts to change when Wolf is sentenced to prison for his last “job”, and Cheryl decides to turn the family around and go straight. Cheryl doesn’t receive rousing support or enthusiasm from her offspring. Yet she battles on, doing her best to carry the family through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Naturally, enormously entertaining complications ensue.

Anyway, back to Loretta. What does she have to tell us about schooling, learning, and education? (And where is the connection to Shakespeare?)

During season 1 we learn that Loretta has been frequently truant from school. The reason for this is pretty clear: Loretta finds school boring, pointless, and an utter waste of time. What makes Loretta’s attitude towards school interesting is that she is obviously extremely intelligent. She’s a talented writer, she’s articulate, can speak confidently and argue her opinions. She’s no slacker; she has big goals for herself. Her single-minded goal at age 15 is to become a film-maker, and she’s already working on a screenplay with her teenage friend and fellow video store employee, Kurt.

Yes, Loretta is highly intelligent. However, she is also rather devious .

She discovers the perfect way to avoid her mum finding out that she’s not going to school: blackmail. Several years earlier  young Loretta took some incriminating photos of her young female teacher in “compromising” positions with Loretta’s older brother, and now years later is using them to keep her teacher quiet on her truancy. However, through a series of plot twists and turns this plan eventually falls through and Loretta has no choice but to go back to school.

In season 2, Loretta turns 16. This is both the legal school-leaving age in NZ, and the age at which each of her three elder siblings has left Shadbolt High. She is momentarily overjoyed – only to be foiled by her parents’ insistence that she remain at school to develop her full potential. So Loretta tries get herself expelled. But even this backfires, as her parents decide that she will have to attend a private Catholic Girls’ school instead. Finally, in a stroke of genius, Loretta cuts a deal with a young homeless woman of a similar age and appearance. The homeless girl will attend the school as “Loretta West”. In return, she receives a free education, a place to sleep, and payment. This frees the real Loretta to get on with her “real” life – managing her video business, and working towards her first film. As you can imagine, things don’t work out exactly as she planned, but again, I can’t give too much away….

In a truly digital-age convergence of television and the internet, you can read Loretta’s view of school in own words, right here on Loretta’s Blog. (Hint: that’s where you’ll find our first connection to Shakespeare….)

So what can Loretta West of Outrageous Fortune tell us about how schooling is? I know that Loretta is a highly fictionalised character, and many elements of her life have been exaggerated for dramatic and comic effect. But I think there’s something interesting simmering underneath this portrayal of a student’s deep antipathy towards school. In representing secondary school, Outrageous Fortune has played on a stereotype or cliche not uncommon in television or filmic portrayals of school: The disaffected student, who finds teachers boring and uninspiring, doesn’t do what she is told, and eventually goes on to become so disruptive that the school is happy to see the back of her. These kinds of students are rife in the film world – although usually they’re often set up to be saved by a charismatic teacher who “won’t give up on them” even when every other teacher has. Thus re-engaged, the delinquents become stars, show the world not to dismiss them while they’re at it. Think Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2, Take the Lead, etc. These cliches about students “work” partly because they are grounded in truth. Plenty of kids are disengaged by school by the time they reach secondary classrooms. Plenty of kids, like Loretta, have extremely complicated lifeworlds that sit at odds with the culture and practice of the secondary classroom. Plenty of them leave early, as soon as they are legally entitled to, with few or no qualifications. And not all of them are as resourceful and resilient as Loretta West. The question is, do we think this is just “part of life”, “the way things are”, “the way they are always going to be”? Or can we imagine something different?

*The title of this posting is a line from Romeo and Juliet. In case it’s not obvious, this is an homage to the writers of Outrageous Fortune (the television series) who have borrowed both their show’s title, and the titles of each episode, from William Shakepeare.

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Shakespeare for my birthday

February 25th, 2009

I’ve just been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare for my 40th birthday (along with a bottle of whiskey, a magnificent stainless steel coffee plunger, a second-hand TV and DVD player, and I won’t go on…) which has got me thinking (again, in the light of recent media headlines) about the Bard of Avon, this long dead bourgeois Englishman whose oeuvre has become a secular bible in the West (and to a certain extent an instrument of oppression and cultural demolition – though that’s not his fault!). And I’ve begun thinking about my twenty-five year relationship to his plays and poems.

Where did this relationship begin? If you believe the (popularly) critically acclaimed study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the inventor of the human, Shakespeare’s texts had a key role in constructing my personality before I was born. I was born into the world Shakespeare had a large part in creating. Bloom claims that Shakespeare constructed through his characters, most notably Falstaff and Hamlet, the blueprint for the human personality, that Shakespeare expanded and defined the possibilities of personality and character, and drew attention to all the facets and shades of personality we value as a society. In other words, he showed us how to be – whether or not each one us has experienced one of the plays directly. It’s a bold claim and theoretically unfashionable in its claims of universals which include the placement of Shakespeare at the top of a canon – and not only of Western literature but of world literature.

Perhaps a good place to start (though still problematic) is with the question: what’s so good about Shakespeare? Bloom, like others before him, points to the ‘unparalleled range’ of Shakespeare’s characters and the ‘incomparable vitality’ of his writing. People have objections to making comparisons and some people object to Shakespeare (Tolstoy being a famous example), but if you’re prepared to address the question of who has the greatest range of characterisation in literature, there aren’t many convincing arguments against him. Is characterisation important, or the most important aspect of literature? Again, it’s hard to argue (if you’re prepared to) against such an assertion (in the ‘realist’ tradition). It seems to be fairly widely accepted these days in creative writing classes, for example, that character is the engine of literature. Another aspect of Shakespeare that seems unsurpassable is the variety of interpretations that can be brought to his plays. When I first studied English Lit at Victoria University, The Taming of the Shrew was banned for being offensive to women; however, Bloom reads the play as proof of the superiority of women over men in the ‘battle of the sexes’. He insists that Katherina genuinely loves Petruchio; she learns how to control him by simply pretending to agree with him, and her famous submissive speech at the end of the play is obviously ironical and comical. Bloom says (paraphrasing Auden) that our interpretations show how Shakespeare reads us.

Where do I, a contemporary reader, come into this? (other than being born into it…) I first held a play by Shakespeare in my hand at Newlands College, in English class in year 10 or 11. I had seen or heard only fragments of his plays at that time, enough to know that the language was hard to follow. However, in English class, with the text in my hand, I knew I could go slowly and concentrate and engage with this mythical figure.

This introduction to Shakespeare is one of three lonely memories of class work from school which I still carry with me to this day. I remember the room and where I was sitting with unusual clarity (at the back left). Our teacher, a black woman from Guyana, had a cardboard box from which she produced small, light blue books, hard covered, durable and old.  I took the tough little book and opened it with a rare feeling of significance. It was almost momentous: my first one-on-one meeting with the greatest writer ever (which seemed to spill into ‘greatest human’, somehow) – which was how everyone had described him on TV and radio and in books and in conversation for as long as I could remember. People and the media talked about other people as well, of course, but Shakespeare was unique in the unanimous reverence he attracted. He occupied a special place in the culture. So, I opened the blue book Mrs Williams gave me and found… people talking – oddly. They spoke gracefully, powerfully, intelligently, incomprehensibly. No light illuminated my mind. The class didn’t stir from its usual apathy. Memory over.

You may be wondering if I was I happy to get The Complete Works for my birthday, whether I threw it out the window with a cry of rage; whether I immediately put it on a prominent place in the bookshelf, next to the bible, where it will remain unopened but noticed; or if I opened the book at random, found someone talking in Romeo and Juliet  – and my jaw dropped open in surprise.

A person begins engaging with the world Shakespeare helped create long before they get into year 11 or 12 – on a day when a certain tension creeps into their teacher’s voice… Whether or not ‘axing’ Shakespeare is only a media beat-up, I find myself worried about the creation of special schools which are selectively excluded from looking at such a pervasive and unique cultural figure. The students will know they’ve been marginalised. They’ll know they’ve been picked out, identified as being unable or unwilling to engage with the highest (or thereabouts) level of Western art. To paraphrase Bloom, they’ll be told they’re not worthy of being read by Shakespeare.

Is Bloom overstating Shakespeare’s influence here? (Plato comes to mind as another secular figure to whom similar seminal cultural influence is attributed.) I’d love to hear about young peoples’ attitudes to this cultural behemoth we call Shakespeare – before and after they study him.

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It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…

versus

Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…

versus

Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?


[1]  15th November 2008.

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