The controversial Common Core state standards want students to read William Shakespeare’s works, but some teachers don’t like the idea.
Dana Dusbiber, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., wrote in the Washington Post this week that she dislikes teaching Shakespeare, and not only because of his challenging English. “There is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students,” she argued.
Dusbiber may signal a trend. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported in April that the majority of English majors at top U.S. universities are not required to take a Shakespeare course.
Is Shakespeare obsolete for students today? Or does the Bard still have plenty to offer even to this distracted generation? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
Violence. Murder. Insanity. Greed. Witchcraft. Betrayal. And that’s just in “Macbeth.” Don’t forget love, romance, sex, honor, respect, duty, self-sacrifice, free will, mortality — great universal themes that Shakespeare brings alive in his plays and sonnets.
If a high school English teacher can’t make that stuff exciting, she’s in the wrong line of work.
But isn’t Shakespeare’s language tricky? In her Washington Post article, Dana Dusbiber says Shakespeare wrote “in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate.”
That’s simply wrong. Although some of his locutions are a bit strange to the modern American ear, Shakespeare’s English isn’t much different from our own. We use so many of his once-novel words and phrases that they’ve practically become cliches: “there’s the rub,” “this mortal coil,” “to thine own self be true,” “it’s Greek to me” and hundreds more.
Understand, this cheapened view of Shakespeare isn’t solely the opinion of one teacher in California. It’s of a piece with the decades-old, largely ridiculous efforts to make Shakespeare “more accessible” for modern audiences.
Penguin Books, a major publishing house, recently announced a new series called “OMG Shakespeare.” The publisher’s marketing campaign appeals nakedly to a post-literate generation of readers by rendering the Bard into “emoji” speak — those cute heart and smiley symbols you see all the time in text messages. How long before we see Shakespeare performed entirely through grunts and whistles?
Dusbiber’s claims are also a symptom of a much deeper problem: dumbing down the curriculum and dismissing the Western canon in the name of “diversity.”
“What I worry about is that as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN'S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important,” she wrote.
This is poison. It’s true that a well-educated person should be acquainted with other cultures and perspectives. But to brush off Shakespeare as just another dead white male is absurd.
Shakespeare’s plays entertain. But within his comedies and tragedies are truths that cut across all cultures at all times. Anything gained by shunting the Bard aside cannot possibly make up for what would be lost.
Two early memories of Shakespeare:
In high school, I took a literature class where we read our way — slowly — through “Macbeth.” We did so using an unusual text: On the left side of the page, Shakespeare’s original words. On the right? Those same words translated into Modern English. For most of us, let me tell you, the translated pages were necessary to our academic survival.
A few years later, I went to see Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” in the movie theater. It was mostly a delight — but I didn’t realize how powerful it was until the lights came up and I saw the tear-stained faces of a few dozen teen girls, all spent from having watched “Leo” DiCaprio die, gloriously and handsomely, on screen.
A couple of things to learn from those anecdotes:
First, Dana Dusbiber is right: For young, inexperienced or struggling readers, Shakespeare is hard stuff — akin to reading German for the first time, if you’ve never seen the language before. Oh, sure, it’s English — but in much the same way that Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are English. Which is to say, both are written in an archaic dialect not easily understood by the uninitiated. If the goal is to get young people to read, write and communicate with clarity, forcing Shakespeare on them may not be the best route.
Second, Dana Dusbiber is wrong: Shakespeare isn’t just a “dead white guy,” as she frequently dismisses him in her Washington Post essay. He told timeless stories with enduring themes — all best experienced not on the page, as literature, but as theater: Performed by trained actors who know how to make archaic language come alive through the power of their performance. We don’t teach even the best-written screenplays as literature, do we? Why do we insist on teaching plays that way?
I still enjoy seeing a Shakespeare play, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve read one. He still has much to teach us, but not if he’s taught using wrong, mystifying, off-putting methods. Let’s keep teaching Shakespeare — but let’s not do it in the same old ways.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.