Personal Experience and Individual Passions: Keys to Academic Excellence
Education in our modern age tends to favor a standardized approach to learning. While this serves the statistical best interests of the educational system, it can have a demoralizing effect on students who learn unconventionally. The idea of mass public education is to put students more or less on the same page, with a comparable set of skills and knowledge. The reality, however, is that this will never be the case; regardless of what one learns in the classroom, his or her own life experiences have as profound, if not more so, of an effect on the way an individual gains knowledge. It is therefore essential, in the interest of true education, to integrate one’s practical knowledge and passions into an academic context, and understand that all knowledge is valid.
The very word ‘education’ derives from this concept, stemming from the Latin educare, the literal translation of which means ‘to draw out.’ The Roman’s philosophical approach to learning, inherited from the Greeks — Socrates in particular — was contingent upon differing points of view. One did not learn by being told things but rather by using one’s own knowledge in a debate, in which both parties would benefit from the mental exercise of critically engaging with new perspectives and, in so doing, gain a broader understanding of the world.
This approach of drawing knowledge from within and reaching new conclusions can be especially useful when confronted with a subject outside of one’s normal comfort zone or area of interest. The key is to find a connection between a foreign concept and one which matters to you personally. While this approach may seem obvious, many students feel a pressure to merely regurgitate information they’ve been given, assuming that their teacher wouldn’t have told them something if it weren’t important. While this may be true, it demonstrates an ability to listen rather than to learn. Trust yourself, and show that you can take something you’ve been given and make something new out of it!
I’ll show you a few examples, using the subject of Shakespeare’s Henry V as a starting point.
Henry V as History
The leap from Literature to History is pretty short in the case of Henry V, as it was one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Thus, if your natural inclinations lean toward the historical, try to view the play through that lens. Say, for example, you are given an essay prompt which asks you to analyze Henry’s motives for going to war with France. If you are a history buff, you might be more interested in discussing the legal validity of his claim to the French throne than the ‘coming-of-age’ angle to Shakespeare’s story.
Or perhaps you have a family member who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and would like to bridge the gap between Shakespeare’s medieval politics and those of our modern age. Regardless of your personal political leanings, there are interesting parallels to be discussed between King Henry V and president George W. Bush, who both sought to garner domestic favor by drawing their nation’s attention toward their father’s foreign adversaries.
Henry V as Music, or Math
If you prefer rhythm and numbers games, you could focus on the writing itself. Shakespeare wrote huge portions of the play in iambic pentameter (as any number of teachers have probably told you). If you don’t care much for story but love analyzing patterns, you could look for scenes which make heavy use of iambic pentameter — which conveniently encompasses most of Henry’s lines — and discuss how Shakespeare’s careful rhythm affects the play.
Does the poetic verse add depth to a character’s speech, or does it merely serve to distinguish a member of the nobility from the common soldiers? If you want to argue for the latter, perhaps you ought to consider a reverse of the former argument and claim that those characters who speak without verse — characters like Mistress Quickly and Pistol — are the only ones who communicate in an unpretentious, grounded fashion, and iambic pentameter serves as a pretty mask to hide ugly intentions and cold calculations. Strong cases could be made for either, and in both cases you can use your natural talent for finding patterns and rhythms to make your point.
Henry V as Popular Culture
Say you can’t find any parallels between Henry V and your other academic studies, what then? Almost anything, really. Shakespeare’s works have become somewhat ubiquitous, having pervaded nearly every medium in our culture as well as spreading to other peoples across the world. One quick example is HBO’s critically acclaimed war-drama Band of Brothers, whose title is derived from a line from Henry’s famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech.
That being said, you needn’t even bother linking Shakespeare to Shakespeare. Try instead to find a parallel to Henry’s story within the context of your own experiences. If you’re into comics, you could find a connection between Henry and the antagonist in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Adrian Veidt — another Machiavellian anti-hero who fabricates global conflict to further his own ends. If you’re a film buff, you could talk about prisoners of war using the context of Saving Private Ryan. Henry is famously reviled for killing his helpless war-prisoners, whereas Captain Miller spares and releases a prisoner to disastrous results later in the film.
The key is not to dismiss anything out of hand — if something strikes you, work at it for a few minutes and see what you come up with. Something as simple as a song lyric or an aphorism you read in passing can inspire you if you remain open to it and trust your mind to find connections where it will. You have access to more knowledge than you may realize — Use it!