The Decline of the Arts and the role of ENG4U

(or “Breaking up is Hard to Do”)

Grade 12 university level English is a mandatory course for acceptance to university programs here in Ontario as I’m sure anyone who reads my blog knows.

I get the sense, and I’m looking for statistics to back this up, that since I began teaching in 2003, more students are applying to STEM programs at university now than arts or humanities programs. This really hit home for me when, in my grade 11 enriched English course, I listened to one of our guidance counselors survey my class to find out what programs my students were planning on applying to: engineering, medicine, and chemistry, were popular answers while I heard one student say philosophy, and a few others say law.

For the most part, this is not a class where students get passionate about literature or art. It’s a bit of a bummer for me, but I also need to get over it. I still think the arts in general, and literature specifically, have an important place in my students’ education regardless of where life takes them after high school. Literature forces us to deal with the big questions about life, death, love, hate and what it means to be human in ways that more concrete, or “black and white” disciplines can’t. I don’t want to live in a world with people who don’t care about these things or don’t ever think deeply about them. I will always firmly advocate for literature and the arts as being essential to a student’s education.

That being said, if 85% of my grade 12s have no intention of studying English literature in university, should I still be teaching ENG4U the way I do?

For example, in ENG4U, I teach Hamlet. I love Hamlet. So my reasons for continuing to teach it are partly selfish. If pressed though, I would say that while I think it’s good for students to know the basic story of Hamlet and the key issues the play raises, I don’t think it’s important for them to be able to quote lines from the play or even to be able to do a close reading of a soliloquy (please don’t make me return my BA for saying so). I think that learning to make meaning from a particularly challenging text is an important skill, but that doesn’t logically support me covering the play in as much detail as I currently do. In fact, I’ve been paring down the amount of time I really spend digging into to the text over the past four years or so. But I still do the whole thing. I still spend at least 4 weeks studying the play–although I’ve moved from reading and then watching to doing a combination of both, to mostly watching and reading specific passages to compare a director’s interpretation to the primary source. But really, I don’t think any of this is necessary. I think I could probably cover the same expectations in about a week or two.

So what should I focus on instead? And how do I break up with Hamlet without turning into Ophelia and drowning myself in a river?

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