A Closer Look

Shakespeare and the Ins and Outs of Education Reform

by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

    BACK IN 1992, I wrote a now much-traveled piece for RPCV Writers & Readers (the newsletter that was the precursor to this website) entitled, “Shakespeare in Calabar.” The essay — which was published under the title “A West African Postcard” in November, 1992 — told of my experience in the early 1960s shepherding a full-blown secondary-school Shakespearean production 3,000 miles around Nigeria on an 18-wheeler playing to palaces and soccer stadiums, to the Sahel and back.

The story picks up forty years later in America’s unruly efforts at educational reform. The Department of Education of a certain eastern state is currently developing a new edition of the state’s High School Graduation Qualifying Examination. This exam will be given to all of the state’s 10th grade students. If they pass — good show. If they don’t, they take it again the next year. Fail again, no graduation, no diploma. The state will also be able to grade its schools, one against the other. At last, accountability in education.
     So I was thrilled a few weeks ago when I learned that “Shakespeare in Calabar” is a shoe-in for the Reading Comprehension section of the state’s upcoming Qualifying Exam. Gee, my muscled-up, in-your-face prose is to some purpose after all: gatekeeper to some kid’s future. If my high school English teachers could see me now.
     Then it dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t my classy writing they wanted. My little story will probably be chosen because it carries one of the few readable references anywhere supporting such qualifying exams. Oh well, so it goes, take the check and run. Here is the paragraph that qualified my piece for the state exam:

      Astonishingly, in the West Africa of this period lay the most Shakespeare-literate society the world has known since 16th century London. Secondary schools in Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon still competed under the Cambridge University West African School Certificate Council’s Examination program. The “School Cert” mandated, among other standards, that students study five years of Shakespeare to prepare for the final examination’s “set play.” As a result, for several generations, millions of West African kids quite literally memorized two or three of William Shakespeare’s plays. (Such heroic learning was much inspired by every Nigerian’s lovely use of language and the daily reality of a national life then singularly Elizabethan in the epic grandeur of its debates and tribal intrigues of power and vivid character.) At our performances thousands would mouth the lines in an audible susurrus that confounds me now as I worry over what went wrong with American schools.

    Waffling back and forth
    I have been thinking about all that now. In the above paragraph notice there is no mention of the School Cert’s awful downside. We were all Volunteers in an education system whose principal by-product was millions of “school leavers,” students who failed either the 8th-grade or 12th-grade qualifying exam — the School Cert. The British colonials had sure enough left in place a cast system similar to England’s own. It still results in swarms of literate African kids wandering the streets with nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Curtain rises, enter America, stage right.
         On the other hand, since I am a graduate school washout myself, I might say that literate, Shakespeare-quoting school-leavers are preferable, probably, to many of our current high school graduates and damn near all of our dropouts. But I am glad we didn’t have such exams (and the stress of living with them) when I went to high school. Then again, our parents and their parents had various tough and/or mean-spirited bars to clear and they came out mostly OK. Maybe edge is good.
         Back when I thought so, because Al Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), also believed that “national standards would be an important step toward improving the achievement of all our students,” I wrote him a letter. I enclosed “Shakespeare in Calabar.” Shanker excerpted both the letter and “Calabar” in a January 3, 1993 New York Times Op-Ed piece. My cover letter began:

      Ask any Peace Corps Volunteer who taught school in West Africa during the sixties about the power of a national curriculum and standards, and we will tell you that the West African School Certificate Examination program, maintained from Cambridge University in England, produced tens of thousands of high school graduates better educated than most of us American Volunteers . . . . Clearly it is time for a national curriculum and standards in this country. It puts all schools, teachers and students on an equal footing.

         Today? Dunno. With all the politics involved, I obviously waffle back and forth. Beyond the evident irony that I don’t comprehend my own piece of the Reading section of the State Exam, somehow this education reform kick we’re on lacks that vision thing: Isn’t there something missing in this debate?

    It’s learning, stupid!
    Then I think of a friend, Phil Lane Jr. Phil is the director of Four Worlds International Institute, an Alberta-based Native American development organization with ties to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation here in Pendleton, Washington. Always the first words out of his mouth: “No vision, no development.” Phil then moves from the lesser evils — schools, students, and teaching methods — to what it’s all about: Learning is the key to deep and lasting change. Learning leads to life rather than death. Learning enables people to see possibilities and potentials within themselves, and to envision a sustainable, desirable and attainable future. Learning generates and sustains the processes of healing and development that constitute the journey to a sustainable life. Learning transforms.
         Yes, think learning and we will all sleep better, not worrying so much about where our children are and whether they are studying for their Qualifying Exam. Simply, not how well are they doing, but are they learning? Talk to your kids at dinner and you will know. But then, are you learning? As my mother (a kindergarten teacher) used to say: “Show me a learning parent and I will show you a learning child.” Pencils down.

    Tom Hebert is a Pendleton-based writer and consultant. With co-author John Coyne, he wrote three books on post secondary education.