Should We Kick Shakespeare Out of the High School Curriculum?

As a former English teacher who taught Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar to 9th and 10th graders and who, in my master’s thesis, made an argument against making everyone read Shakespeare, I found this week’s dialog around reading Shakespeare to be fascinating. It was kicked off by Lauren, a high school senior who is blogging about her reading of 18 Shakespeare plays over the course of the school year as part of an independent study.

Lauren responded vehemently to Dana Dusbiber, an English teacher who argued against continuing to include Shakespeare as part of the common core. Dusbiber suggested that it was time to open students to more diverse and relevant literature rather than forcing them to struggle with an archaic language written by a long dead white guy. She concludes:

Let’s let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage reading and literature study.

It was basically the same argument I made nearly 25 years ago. Like Dusbiber, I was working in a pretty tough inner city school, and no matter what I tried, I felt like a foreign language teacher when we came to the Shakespeare unit. I was more interested in getting my students personally engaged in the act of reading rather than forcing the canon upon them.

But, Lauren’s argument is convincing in its intensity. Shakespeare has stuck around because he speaks of eternal truths in very human ways. The themes are universal and new interpretations are demonstrating how they can be recreated in diverse and contemporary ways even while preserving the beauty of the language. Lauren includes wonderfully wide ranging examples in her post.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for me gets at the heart of public education: this is the one place where we all assemble and the one opportunity we have to introduce students to a wide variety of literature.  Washington Post commentator Valerie Strauss, who published Dusbiber’s post, followed up with one of the many rebuttals she received. High school English teacher Matthew Truesdale gets at the universalism of Shakespeare but goes on to suggest powerfully that rejecting any literature that doesn’t speak to the student’s exact experience eliminates lots of literature from the high school syllabus. He wants to help students look through the window of human experience rather than always gazing in a mirror. He also has good ideas for how to integrate Shakespeare with more diverse and contemporary literature.

When I taught high school English, it seemed as though the curriculum was designed for future English majors, and we followed a timeline of literature that didn’t get much past the early 20th century. Truesdale’s idea of a more expansive reading list would help put Shakespeare in context for contemporary readers.

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