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Teacher: Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school

Portrait of Shakespeare. ( Folger Shakespeare Library)

I’ve been inundated with e-mails from teachers and other Shakespeare lovers yelling about a post published early Saturday (which you can read here) by a high school teacher who says she doesn’t want to teach the Bard anymore. Why? Because, she said, she doesn’t like his work and thinks that there other works of literature from different cultures that speak to the human condition as well as or better than Shakespeare that would be more engaging to students.

As you might expect, I’ve been called all kinds of names for posting the piece, and the author — whose opinion, by the way, is shared by a lot of people in and out of education — has been pilloried too.  I happen to love Shakespeare, and would be sorry if students were not exposed to his works, but I post a lot of pieces on this blog with which I find interesting even if I don’t agree. It is worth noting that while Shakespeare is required in the Common Core high school English Language Arts standards, it is the case that most of the country’s top-ranked colleges and universities do not require English majors to take a course devoted to his works. You can read about that in this story by my Post colleague Nick Anderson.

Here is one of the smart responses I received to the original post, which was written Dana Dusbiber, a  veteran teacher at Luther Burbank High School, the largest urban high school in Sacramento, Calif. This post is by Matthew Truesdale, an English teacher at Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C. Truesdale just finished his twelfth year of teaching English, all of them as a middle or high school teacher in South Carolina public schools.  He now teaches and coaches at Wren High School in Anderson, SC, a largely rural area. He writes that as a student he didn’t enjoy reading Shakespeare, but as a teacher, he can “clearly see why he still belongs in high school and college English classrooms” along with other forms and authors of literature.

Dana Dusbiber does a disservice to teachers and particularly those of us who teach English when she makes the argument that Shakespeare should be left to “rest in peace.”
Ms. Dusbiber is frustrated by the narrowness of the Western canon and by the expectation that high school students read Shakespeare.  But that expectation is not a new one.  Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet have been staples of any high school English curriculum for years upon years.  I prefer Othello, so I teach that.  But I don’t do it because I feel beholden to any set of expectations or standards–I do it because I want my students to have the experience of reading it…that’s it, and that’s all.
I often tell my students that one of the main reasons to read a Shakespeare play is simply for the privilege of telling others you’ve read a Shakespeare play.  In certain arenas, being able to carry on even a brief conversation about a plot point from King Lear is important and can give one credibility. I also think it’s a neat little thing to see something in a movie, another book, or even (gasp!) real life, and think, “Hey—this reminds me of that scene in Hamlet when…”
But my complaint Dusbiber’s post is this:  She argues that her students shouldn’t have to read Shakespeare because other literature “better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.”  She then goes on to write that it might be “appropriate to acknowledge him as a chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”
So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today?  Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience?  Or feel jealousy or rage?  Or fall victim to discrimination?  Or act desperately out of passion?  To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.” And yes– Shakespeare was in fact a white male. But look at the characters of Othello and Emila (among others), and you’ll see a humane, progressive, and even diverse portrayal of the complexities of race and gender.
If Ms. Dusbiber doesn’t want to teach Shakespeare or doesn’t like Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is too hard for her students, then fine…let that be her reasoning.  Any teacher, myself included, has made decisions to switch out texts based on any number of factors.
What she really seems to be saying is that no one should read anything that isn’t just like them, and if that’s her position as an English teacher, then she should maybe consider a different line of work.
Shakespeare is more than just a “long dead British guy,” and I believe he has much to teach us about the modern human condition. When the general Othello, who has lived a life full of valor and who has had experiences far beyond and far greater than those of his men, still falls victim to Iago’s head games for no other reason than that he is different, an other, and can’t quite forget that, no matter his accomplishments, we empathize precisely because we’ve been there. Most of us have felt insecurities that come not because we can’t succeed or haven’t succeeded, but that instead come because of how we are seen and judged.
Also–where does it say that we can’t teach Shakespeare AND oral African tradition?  In fact, why not work to draw links between the two? And should we only read authors that look like us and have experiences like us?  Or for that matter, does a commonality in skin color mean a commonality in experience? I teach at a rural South Carolina school with a mostly white population—should I only teach white authors? Will all of my white students feel an immediate kinship to Faulkner or Hemingway to Twain?  Will all of my female students see themselves perfectly in the characters of Flannery O’Connor? Will all of my black students read A Raisin in the Sun and immediately connect to the desperation and inner turmoil of Walter Younger?  Obviously not.
Ms. Dusbiber’s argument is largely reductive, and it turns the English classroom into a place where no one should be challenged or asked to step out of their comfort zone, where we should not look beyond ourselves.
I, however, think English class is the perfect place to push and prod and even piss off students sometimes, and I can’t do that if I’m only ever holding up a mirror. Windows are good, too.