EducationElementary & Secondary

Shakespeare Not Worth Teaching? | O, What Learning Is

By June 23, 2015 No Comments


As reported by Claire last week, there is an ongoing debate on keeping Shakespeare in the classroom after a Sacramento high school teacher said in a piece in the Washington Post that she didn’t want to teach Shakespeare anymore, which concentrated almost entirely on the race of her students and of the author himself.

The responses to this have continued this week, with the Sacramento Bee reporting that the teacher’s principal indicated that the Washington Post article was the teacher’s opinion, not representative of the school.  However, the school district is apparently as concerned as the teacher about the students in their district being taught mainly white authors when their own backgrounds are ethnically diverse as they have voted to have all students complete an ethnic studies course before graduation, starting in 2020.

Meanwhile, a number of people have pointed out that the teacher really doesn’t have much choice about teaching Shakespeare because it is written into the Common Core and her students will be tested on it–and that what is really at stake here is whether we trust teachers to know what is best for the curriculum:

“I agree with Dusbiber that Shakespeare should not be taught to the exclusion of writers of color or contemporary authors,” The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruening wrote Tuesday. However, she added, “Reading the literature of the past opens a window into a world in which the assumptions that dominate our lives were not yet imagined or fully formed, and shows us how people might live without the principles we mostly accept without question now.”

But the core of the matter, according to Berlatsky, is that when it all comes down to it, whether or not Dusbiber wants to teach Shakespeare isn’t really her decision to make. It’s written into the curriculum whether she likes it or not.

There have been a number of reactions, of course.  Some recent ones have included this piece in the New Republic which focuses partly on how alien the world of Shakespeare is to us–and the benefits of learning from the past.

The question I have is why teaching Shakespeare is seen as being an all or nothing proposition.  Why can’t we teach Shakespeare but also other authors from different backgrounds that the teacher feels may be more relevant to her students?  Also, is the skin color of the author the only thing we should be using to judge whether students can understand and “get something” from a work?  The original article focused almost entirely on the skin color of Shakespeare and the students.  While I think most people will agree that the “canon” was almost exclusively white and male for far too long–and that we all benefited from the desire to read a more diverse group of authors, is the teacher really saying that skin color is such an impediment to learning that we need to move to get rid of some of the classics entirely because the author’s skin tone is too different from the audience?  While there is only so much time in the classroom, so adding items to the canon necessarily means some things will not be taught which used to be, shouldn’t the work itself determine what gets to stay with the more diverse lineup?  Are Shakespeare’s plays, which have had a huge impact on our culture, no longer relevant just because of his skin color?  Let us know how you feel–is Shakespeare relevant in a diverse classroom?  If the literature being taught to students is diversified to bring in more authors that match the students’ race, how should we decide what is cut to make room?


A nice writeup on how a special education school does Shakespeare performances–always heart-warming to hear how many different types of students can benefit from Shakespeare taught well.

If you have paid attention to Shakespeare and Education at all, you’ve heard of the Hobart Shakespeareans, with their leader Rafe Esquith.  Esquith has written several books on teaching and his drama group is well known in Los Angeles and beyond.  Unfortunately, he is also now in the middle of a scandal.  He has been forced out of his classroom and onto leave.  The school system says it is because of an inappropriate comment about nudity.  He says it is politically motivated–that the schools are overreacting and that teachers are not receiving due process and fair investigations.

He said he quipped with students that if he could not raise enough money for the annual Shakespearean play, they would all have to perform their parts naked like the king in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“We overreact to everything. That’s the American way and I’m a victim of that overreaction,” Esquith said. “I want to fix this system. I want to make sure that teachers do not have to go through the same thing that I went through.”

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