Is Shakespeare necessary?

Does Romeo and Juliet have any interest for today’s students?

Shakespeare’s just another dead white male with nothing to say to ethnically diverse students, writes a California English teacher, who’s featured on Answer Sheet.

Dana Dusbiber doesn’t like Shakespeare herself — the language is too difficult — and doesn’t teach it to her “ethnically diverse” students.

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.

. . .  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.

Shakespeare lived in “a small world,” she believes. The oral tradition of Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia “includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior,” writes Dusbiber.

If there’s not enough time to do it all, dump the Western canon. “If we only teach students of color, . . . then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives.”

It is “ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare,”, responds Matthew Truesdale, who teaches English at a rural South Carolina high school. He likes to teach Othello.

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.”

. . . 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.

Teachers can link Shakespeare’s plays with other traditions, writes Truesdale. But we shouldn’t assume Shakespeare is for whites (or white male British-Americans) only.  Dusbiber’s argument “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’ve always thought people read Shakespeare for the language, not for life lessons. Well, I guess students could learn that feigning death is not the best way to get out of an arranged marriage. And don’t commit suicide — or murder your wife or your king —  too quickly. It might not be a good idea. On the other hand, don’t think too long about murdering your uncle. Get on with it before 3/4 of the Elsinore population is dead too and you need a Norwegian mop-up crew.

As it happens, I’m on my way to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to see some plays. For fun.

Welcome back, dead white males

Welcome back, dead white males  writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor of English, in a New York Daily News op-ed. Common Core Standards adopted by 45 states plus D.C., require students to “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature,” as well as foundational historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence. It’s about time, writes Bauerlein.

For bookish types and patriotic citizens, too, the canon of Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography,” Emerson’s essays, “The Scarlet Letter” and “Huck Finn” is a personal inspiration as well as a sacred heritage.

But to the people in control of high school English — those who craft standards, select anthologies, monitor curricula and teach classes — that great tradition is not a treasure. It’s a threat.

Until the 20th century, they note, nearly all authors were white males, and the cultures in which they thrived cast females and people of color as inferior.

In the last 30 years, high school students have read quota-driven anthologies instead of classic literature, Bauerlein writes.

We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.

English teachers have to comply, whether they like it or not. Common Core gives teachers “a solid defense against identity quotas in the classroom,” Bauerlein writes.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.