Go ahead and teach Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber, a Sacramento high school English teacher, thinks teaching William Shakespeare to her students is a waste of time. She blogs her reasoning in the Washington Post.

I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior…

Look, let’s put this right out here: Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t fly if he wrote them today. There are asides to the audience, soliloquies and monologues, and other conventions that just don’t work for modern viewers. If Hamlet debuted this weekend it wouldn’t go over at a dinner theater in the Poconos, much less Broadway. The language is in an centuries-old dialect of English. And the context for the stories are dated.

So yes, if your reason for studying literature is to learn about the “human condition,” there are easier and more relatable sources. Yet the study of the human condition is not the only reason for the study of literature – that’s a big reason we have sociology. Narrative structures, plot devices, and other technical aspects of a story are important too – not just for understanding one piece of literature, but to give students the tools they need to understand other pieces as needed. This is the reason we study so many works that weren’t written within the past ten years.

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question.

Cheer up and think about this: Shakespeare’s works are among the most influential in all of literature. That decision wasn’t made by English teachers in 1920, but by the people creating content today. Look at the parallels between Macbeth and House of Cards, or between Hamlet and The Lion King. Have you ever teased a male friend who was popular with the ladies by calling him “Romeo”? Have you ever heard someone accused of having blood on their hands?

Incidentally, this is the same reason schools ought to study the Bible as a piece of literature: It is such a common source for cultural references that ignoring it leaves an awfully wide cognitive gap. (Heck, they can’t even make a Superman movie anymore without packing in imagery likening the Man of Steel to Jesus Christ.)

I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.

You’re the teacher. If students were equipped to “choose their own literature” and understand the context and what to look for, English class would be a waste of time and they could spend more time getting those math scores up where they need to be.

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value?

The obvious response would be, “Because it’s English class.” But that’s not the right answer, because Dusbiber is onto something here. Why not include those things? It’s more of a comparative lit track than something you’d see in a high school English class, but that’s just nitpicking. There’s no reason to exclude the works she’s talking about, and if it means a little less Shakespeare, it’s ok. What might be especially relevant are the similarities between themes. Without knowing much about the oral traditions in the places she cites, it’s still a pretty fair bet that they include stories about corruption, ambition, greed, envy, and all the other delightful corners of humanity that Shakespeare liked to explore.

Exploring those similarities might make Shakespeare’s work even more familiar and relevant to students. After all, what better way to show the universal themes of the human condition than to point to similar subject matter explored in plays from Elizabethan England and stories passed down through generations in southeast Asia?

Ignoring the Bard puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding modern cultural references and context, the same way ignoring long division might put students at a disadvantage when they try to understand higher forms of math. Hopefully for Dusbiber’s students, she can find a blend of old and new which does right by her students.

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