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Shakespeare in high school: To teach or not to teach, that is the question
A high school teacher has sparked debate over the place of the Bard and other dead white males in the common core. - photo by Eric Schulzke
California high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber took to Valerie Strauss's education blog at the Washington Post recently to make an impassioned if familiar argument: Stop teaching Shakespeare in high school.

The question is relevant, as Strauss points out, because the hotly debated Common Core curriculum still expects high school students to be exposed to Shakespeare, who is generally thought to be one of the greatest writers the English language ever produced.

In ninth grade, students are expected to "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 11th grade, they should "analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama or poem, evaluating how each version interprets the source text, including at least one play by Shakespeare."

Stuff and nonsense, says Dusbiber.

"If we only teach students of color, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world," she wrote. "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. I admit that this proposal, that we leave Shakespeare out of the English curriculum entirely, will offend many."

Shakespeare, she argues, teaches us nothing about the human condition that we can't learn from a multitude of different sources in more recent and diverse literature, and now that he has been dead for over 400 years, it's time to let him rest in peace.


Strauss did turn her blog over to a counterpoint over the weekend. The respondent was Matthew Truesdale, an English teacher at Wren High School in Piedmont, South Carolina.

"To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today," Truesdale wrote, "is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasnt 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 youll see a humane, progressive and even diverse portrayal of the complexities of race and gender."

"If Ms. Dusbiber doesnt want to teach Shakespeare or doesnt 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," Truesdale argued. "What she really seems to be saying is that no one should read anything that isnt just like them, and if thats her position as an English teacher, then she should maybe consider a different line of work."

Bloomberg columnist Meghan McCardle weighed in as an English major who loves Shakespeare, but remains unclear on why high school students must study him. Before deciding whether to require Shakespeare, she argued, we need to first figure out why we want students to study literature at all, which she finds to be a bit unclear.

"Most people find Shakespeare or John Donne ponderous and dull," McCardle wrote, "joyfully casting them aside as soon as they have earned enough credits to get their diploma. Why are we putting this clear majority of the American people through something they find so distasteful?"

But at The New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig responded with a "progressive case for teaching Shakespeare." Bruenig acknowledged that Shakespeare and other long dead authors lived lives and lived in worlds that are radically different from our own. But she countered with a defense of both history and literature as offering windows into alternative modes of being that break up our assumptions about how things are and must be.

"Eventually," she wrote, "all living authors will be long-dead authors, and all texts will be the scribblings of persons who knew nothing of the way we live now. But it seems remarkably dangerous to venture down a path of ignoring authors who have been gone too long, or who were (necessarily) ill-acquainted with the precise modes of modern living."
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