From time to time, people come along and announce to the world through the always helpful offices of the Media, that they are doing something terribly courageous, as though by merely telling the entire world, they are in some sort of deadly danger. Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation into a sort of woman is a case in point. I suspect I could have completed my journey on this small, blue planet quite satisfactorily without knowing of Jenner’s issues, nor have I gained a new definition of courage in the knowing. In fact, Jenner has been lauded by all the usual suspects, as, you guessed it, tremendously courageous, a pioneer and trend-setter, a shining example for all the Olympic decathalon winners that hope to someday be a woman with men’s plumbing. Somehow there seems little risk and less courage in doing something of which virtually the entire international media will enthusiastically approve.
Now we hear of another tremendously courageous woman, one Dana Dusbiber, whose courage comes, not only from her reluctance to teach Shakespeare, but from her audacity and daring to get The Washington Post to tell us all about it. The WP’s Valerie Strauss explains:
A new report on the teaching of Shakespeare in higher education found that English majors at the vast majority of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities are not now required to take an in-depth Shakespeare course — but the Bard remains a fixture in high school English classes. In fact, studying Shakespeare is a requirement in the Common Core English Language Arts standards, mentioned in specific standards throughout high school.
For example, in ninth and tenth grades:
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).
And in eleventh and twelfth grades:
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
For those not used to educationalese, these standards are pretty generic; they could be easily found in very similar terms in the standards of any state. I do not find that because a thing, absent other compelling reasons, is in the Common Core to be a compelling argument that it is valuable or worthy of instructional time. Moreover, that because what passes for college these days does not require something is usually an eloquent argument that it ought to be required, but I’m old-fashioned. I attended college and grad school in the 1400s when people actually believed that some works of literature were more worthy than others, and for very specific literary and artistic reasons. This was why such things were taught in college, a place where people paid substantial money to learn just those sorts of things. Learning these things and reasons was part of the course. In other words, I attained knowledge the old fashioned way: I earned it. It was hard, but very rewarding, work. The last thing I wanted was to stand, clueless, before a class of students.
Shakespeare, of course, is seen by many as the greatest writer in the English language and central to the Western canon. The idea of not teaching Shakespeare works — with their insights into the human condition — is anathema to many English teachers. But not all of them. Some wish they could stop teaching William Shakespeare’s works altogether. One of those teachers is Dana Dusbiber, a veteran teacher at Luther Burbank High School. Luther Burbank is the largest inner-city school in Sacramento, California, with all students coming from low-income homes and a majority of them minorities. In this post, she explains why she doesn’t want to teach Shakespeare to Luther Burbank (or any) students.
Gee. I wonder why “many” think so highly of Shakespeare?
Many people don’t know how and why teachers choose curriculum. While teachers have no power to hire and fire, and in most places absent ridiculous and destructive union contracts, no power to regulate their conditions of employment, they are usually accorded considerable discretion in choosing curriculum. This makes sense if one understands that in our institutions and businesses, a common, fundamental principle is that we should hire the best qualified, and then allow them to do what they are most qualified to do. This means trusting that English teachers know more about teaching English than their former football coach principal.
English teachers in a given high school develop lists of literary works that are considered so important they must be taught in specific grades. For example, Romeo and Juliet is normally taught in 9th grade, Julius Caesar in 10th grade, 11th grade is reserved for American literature, and Shakespeare returns again in 12th grade when British literature is the focus, with Hamlet, King Lear, or one of several other plays. Why these plays and these years? Because kids aren’t developmentally ready for some topics and ideas until they reach certain ages.
There are other works of literature like Of Mice and Men, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Christmas Carol, Fahrenheit 451, the Maltese Falcon, A Raisin In The Sun, and a variety of short stories that are also on the “must read” list, but within that structure, teachers are free to teach a wide variety of other worthy books, poems and short stories. Resources also dictate their choices. One can’t teach A Christmas Carol if there are no copies in the English Department book storage room.
Here are some of Ms. Dusbiber’s arguments:
I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because 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.
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. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has ‘always been done that way.
I have heard these arguments before–not in my current school because all of the English teachers are experienced professionals–but in seminars and “teacher education” classes. In every case, and Ms. Dusbiber seems to admit it, their lack of enthusiasm for Shakespeare–and any other work of literature–stems from their own deficiencies. Ms. Dusbiber can’t understand English as it was spoken and written in the late 1500s/early 1600’s, and is apparently unaware of or unwilling to access the nearly endless resources that would enlighten her and help her to enlighten her students. This would seem to make her protestations more a matter of lack of professional ability rather than a desire to engage her students.
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. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has ‘always been done.’ 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.
Oh dear. I’ve heard this before too. I teach Shakespeare because I trust in myself as a professional, not because it has always been done that way. English teachers are responsible for teaching good art, literature that represents the greatest achievements of mankind, regardless of the race of the author or the period in which they lived. We are also responsible for explaining to students why that literature is good art. This is important because kids don’t have the experience to know the difference because good art and mere entertainment. The Avengers, for example, was an enormously entertaining, fun movie, worth seeing in the theater and again and again on DVD. But it is not good art. When the history of cinema is written in a hundred years, it will not be on the list of truly great films, unless people like Dusbiber are writing that list. Kids like what interests and dazzles them, and most can’t explain it beyond that. It’s not their fault, but if we don’t teach them to be truly discriminating, it is our fault.
We teach Shakespeare not only because was he a brilliant dramatist, but because he knew human nature so well. Dusbiber suggests that there is “new research on how teenagers learn,” and “…we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.”
This is a common theme in contemporary education. It’s the idea that children are brimming with innate brilliance, and it is not the job of teachers to be “the sage on the stage,” but instead to be “facilitators” that enable them to express that inner brilliance, which means no real teaching, but lots of letting kids learn whatever they want.
The problem with this is if teachers don’t need to know anything beyond what the kids know, why are we paying them? Why not just give each kid a computer, place them in a little square carrel, and let them learn whatever they choose? You know the answer: because most of them would end up playing video games, looking up porn, visiting sports or gossip or car sites, watching old TV reruns, and similar academic pursuits. The kids that were actually academically oriented could try to find more meaningful fare, but how would they know what to read and what it means in the context of a complete curriculum designed to build their brains year after year in a rational and complete way? Experience matters.
There is an enormous amount of “research” on learning, and much of it is nonsense. Much assumes that kids are consumers of learning, and will respond only if it is packaged in attractive ways, ways that catch their eye and fancy. In reality, human beings today learn just as they did thousands of years ago; they just have more convenient tools, which in many cases, contribute more to laziness than academic excellence.
Such research ignores the fact that all teachers can do is present the best opportunity for learning their abilities and resources allow. If the kids aren’t serious about their education–and it is their education–if their parents are not serious about encouraging their children to learn and grow, the greatest teacher backed by the most brilliant research in the world will accomplish little.
I was an English major. I am a voracious reader. I have enjoyed reading some of the classics. And while I appreciate that many people enjoy re-reading texts that they have read multiple times, I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.
What a narrow view of literature, history and humanity. Among the most important things I teach kids is the insight that we can and must return to good art throughout our lives–that’s what makes truly good art so wonderful–and that every time we do, we will find much that is new and exciting, much that we could not understand before, because every time we return, we are new. Older, wiser, more experienced, we gain new insights that amaze us.
Shakespeare lived in the world of humankind. The breadth and depth of his exploration of humanity is boundless, and the lessons he teaches are timeless. We see Julius Caesar being played out before us every day. There is not a teenager alive that can’t relate to Romeo and Juliet–perhaps even learn something from it—or Much Ado About Nothing, for that matter.
But Dusbiber is right. She would be a poor teacher of Shakespeare. Kids take their cues from their teachers. A teacher truly excited about a text, truly believing in its value, transmits that excitement and belief to their students.
A good teacher has the kids act the play, for it is only in motion and action and the physical relation of the characters to one another and their surroundings that it can be fully understood. There must be frequent stops to explain language, customs and history, and the words and phrases of his plays that have become our cultural heritage.
My 15 year-old Texas teenagers understand and appreciate Julius Caesar, and they even like it–particularly when Caesar is murdered. Kids! This is true in part because when we are done with acting, I show them the classic movie version with Marlon Brando as Antony. During that movie, I also explain motivation and human nature, and they are as moved by that movie as any they have ever seen.
But good teachers don’t teach Shakespeare in isolation. Reading and understanding the language is important, because before long, they’ll be reading the language of Dickens from 1843, and later, more modern authors. They need to experience the evolution of our language and understand how it molds us and our culture. The practice of thinking about language differently also builds bigger, better brains. But Dusbiber finally gets to her true theme:
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. In the 25 years that I have been a secondary teacher, I have heard countless times, from respected teachers (mostly white), that they will ALWAYS teach Shakespeare, because our students need Shakespeare and his teachings on the human condition.
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? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.
How many, pray tell, American blacks are actually from Africa? Even if their distant ancestors came from the continent in such a way that there is some discernable family tradition of being uniquely African, how many contemporary black teenagers have any appreciation of Africa, or think of themselves as African? In such a way that reading about the experience of tribal peoples completely foreign to them in everything but skin color would spark a joy of learning?
Students can choose to study such matters on their own time. Of course, virtually none will. They’re kids. I’m sure Dusbiber knows this, and is determined not to teach, but to indoctrinate in the time she has available. Perhaps she is doing this with good intentions, but the results will be no different than if she is not.
Class time is brief and precious. Teachers have an obligation to choose the most meaningful and professional materials possible. The idea that the only, or the best, way to teach teenagers is to pander to their current, juvenile entertainment desires, demonstrates not brilliant research or teaching technique, but a lack of professional seriousness and ability.
We teach Shakespeare because his work is among the best ever produced by human beings, because it speaks to us like little else, and because there are more lessons inherent in it than we can appreciate in a single reading. It is good art. We teach it because of its value in the study of language, and because of the enormous influence it has had on all other good literary art. None of us teach it because Shakespeare was white or male, nor do we decline to teach something else because the author was female, gay, Hispanic, Asian, or Eskimo.
Ms. Dusbiber is free to teach all manner of trendy, politically correct literature, but should not be free to neglect the foundations of the discipline, the foundations of her student’s social and mental development, any more than a history teacher may ignore the American Revolution or a math teacher ignore geometry.
Most kids don’t much like writing. Some English teachers don’t like grading it; done right, it’s very time consuming. Should writing therefore be ignored, or limited only to navel-gazing journal writing or the writing of rap lyrics where spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax need not be read and graded?
That college English majors are not required to study Shakespeare tells professional English teachers all they need know about contemporary “higher” education, and makes them wary of contemporary graduates like Ms. Dusbiber, for whom Shakespeare is obviously, “Greek to me.”