When California high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber decided not to teach Shakespeare’s plays and wrote about her decision in The Washington Post last June, she sparked quite a debate among teachers, professors, and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. What she didn’t spark was a debate among parents and other taxpayers, who should have been heard on the subject. More’s the pity.
Dusbiber reasoned that Shakespeare’s perspectives on life were those of a white Englishman from four centuries ago and that her classrooms filled with students of color needed to engage with the viewpoints of more modern, diverse, and relevant authors—both women and men from many cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds. She wrote:
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…. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.” (quoted from Dusbiber’s piece in The Washington Post)
Of course, there are plenty of arguments on the other side, too. For example, I would argue that including Shakespeare does not mean excluding a wide range of male and female authors from diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds from the past and present. Studying even four or five Shakespearean plays across the middle school and high school grades really does leave plenty of time for other authors.
I would also argue that teachers do not need to make students read and discuss every word in every line of a play; that would be a time-consuming struggle for anyone—middle and high school kids, college students, and adults alike. Perhaps all of us should remember that Shakespeare did not write plays to be read, but rather to be seen. (Even after a course on Shakespeare for my English major at Cornell University, I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare until I stood through a very long and impressive Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of his histories in Stratford-upon-Avon on my honeymoon—my first experience with seeing Shakespeare rather than reading Shakespeare.) If I ever taught Shakespeare, I would simply show the plays—whether filmed stage productions or feature films. There are lots of good ones to choose from, and they make Shakespeare’s language much more accessible to everyone.
And, by the way, Shakespeare is required, by name, in the Common Core Learning Standards. So, if your state has adopted them, that requirement is a weighty argument by itself.
Finally, let me come to a topic that I write about a lot: Should an English teacher be permitted to teach only what he or she finds important, interesting, relevant, and worthy—indeed, only what he or she likes? What if a teacher down the hall from Ms. Dusbiber disliked African authors? What if another teacher down the hall disliked Latin American authors? What if another teacher down the hall disliked female authors? Should we feel fine about each of those teachers making up the required reading list for his or her students? Because, as a matter of fact, English teachers I have known do not dislike only white English authors from four centuries ago.
Parents, should you pull up a chair and listen to or take part in this debate? Should you talk about whether you think it is important for your child to experience one or more Shakespearean plays during middle and/or high school? Should you discuss whether you think a carefully devised multicultural literature curriculum is important for your child and for his or her classmates?
With a new school year barely begun, it is time to take a look at your school’s or school district’s literature curriculum, with Shakespeare as just one example of what to look for:
- All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the content of the literature curriculum and how specific authors or works (e.g., novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, speeches) were chosen. Did the school board approve the choice of specific authors and works or were those decisions left up to a central office administrator, a department chair in a school, or an individual teacher in his or her own classroom? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialists, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly how literature curriculum decisions are made.
- Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the way that literature selections are made in the school. Are specific authors and/or works (e.g., picture books, chapter books, plays, poems, speeches) chosen for study in specific grades? How were those authors and/or works chosen? Were steps taken to ensure that authors represented diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds? Were parents involved in any of the discussions? Could they be next time?
- Middle school and high school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the way that literature selections (e.g., novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, speeches) are made in the school. Are specific authors and/or works chosen for study in specific grades? How were those authors and/or works chosen? Were steps taken to ensure that authors represented diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds? What discussion was there about choosing older vs. modern authors? Was there a discussion about Shakespeare himself? Were parents involved in any of the discussions? Could they be next time?