Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is something of a rite of passage for Americans. For most, it is the first work of Shakespeare they’ll ever experience. For others, it may be the sole work of Shakespeare they’ll ever experience–or remember. It is normally presented in the 9th grade, and for good reasons.
It is then that most kids have matured enough—neurologically—to begin to understand the language and concepts presented. It is then that they can understand the cultural concepts and the consequences of transgressing them. It is then that they can make sense of the lessons Shakespeare presents, and perhaps internalize them. It is then they are going through the same emotions experience by Romeo and Juliet. They might even learn from Shakespeare and avoid making the same mistakes as “Juliet and her Romeo.”
Neurology? Yes. Teachers don’t just teach literature in a given grade because it’s convenient or because it’s territorial. We are very much aware of developmental issues.
Conventional wisdom holds that collegiate teacher education programs are useless, full of the lowest ranking, least capable students, people barely able to tie their own shoes, taught by people who can’t identify a shoe two out of three times. As with all disciplines, one learns what they are willing to work to learn, and among the most potentially useful topics taught is educational psychology.
Therein, prospective teachers learn how and when human beings develop. Classroom teachers tend to take such things to heart, not because someone with acronyms after their name said it, but because experience reinforces what they have learned, and unquestionably confirms it. It is administrators and education bureaucrats, who have priorities other than providing the best possible educational opportunity for each individual student, that forget—if they ever truly knew—or ignore the basics of human brain development.
It is this theory and experience that so disgusts teachers struggling with mandatory, high stakes testing. In Texas, where I teach, the relatively new STAAR tests are said to be much more “rigorous,” and therefore far superior to the TAKS tests replaced by STAAR. Unfortunately, this “rigor” is obtained in English primarily through the vehicle of demanding abstract reasoning of the kids. Doubly unfortunately, the testing is done in the ninth and tenth grades when the kids are 14-16. Human beings are not generally capable of abstract reasoning until the age of 17 or 18, and some, not until later.
So why mandate the tests in those grades, when the kids aren’t capable of actually doing the work? It’s convenient for educrats, and maximally profitable for the companies that manufacture the tests and related materials. Also, educrats have mandated it, and they can’t possibly be wrong.
In truth, we can teach the kids to fake it. Even if they aren’t truly capable of abstraction, we can show them techniques that will usually produce the right answer in a form that will allow them to pass. The problem is they’ll inevitably end up with questions that can’t be faked, that absolutely require the ability to reason abstractly, and when those questions occur, the kids, through no fault of their own, fail. Even so, educrats and their legislative enablers pretend these tests are accurate and valuable indicators of individual academic growth and ability. Having spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the tests and the infrastructure necessary to support them, they have a very powerful vested interest in that pretense.
To provide a bit more perspective, let’s return to Romeo and Juliet, more specifically, what happens if kids aren’t exposed to that single piece of literature in the 9th grade.
At first, avoiding Romeo and Juliet might seem a boon for 9th grade teachers, gaining perhaps as much as two to three weeks of class time for other pursuits. Unfortunately, that time must be made up in tenth grade. Why? Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar is normally presented in tenth grade because the kids are sufficiently matured to understand the political, human nature aspects of the play, and to appreciate the grand rhetoric—such as Marc Antony’s funeral oration—Shakespeare does so well. But understanding Julius Caesar requires the foundation of Romeo and Juliet.
It is only through struggling with and mastering, to at least some degree, the English of the late 1500s, that makes it possible for kids to understand Julius Caesar. Absent that, Julius Caesar might as well have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The kids just haven’t made the neural connections necessary to understand the language and the concepts.
This deficit is not limited to understanding individual works of literature. Failing to make the kinds of neural connections promoted by study of Romeo and Juliet, a single, but important, work of literature, reverberates for years in every academic discipline. Simply put, it retards academic progress in ways that make futile, attempts to compensate for development missed at the best times for that development. Once the window has closed, it’s closed for all time for most people. They never catch up; they’re forever less than they could have been. For the rest of their lives, they will miss references to Romeo and Juliet, and many others flowing from connections between that and other works of literature.
This whole education thing is a bit more complex–and vital–than many people think, isn’t it, gentle readers? This is why teachers are often so passionate about what they do. If they don’t do the right things at the right times and in the right ways, the kids pay the price, perhaps for the rest of their lives. This is why I often rail against political indoctrination of any kind in the schools, and why I always rail against mandatory, high stakes testing. Such things not only prevent kids from studying the materials necessary for proper brain and social development, they take away the precious time necessary to do it.
Failing to learn about the “callow youth” of the world of Romeo and Juliet all but guarantees that today’s callow youth will forever remain callow. There’s a tragedy for the ages.