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The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare

Last week, high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber took to the pages of The Washington Post to explain why she is reluctant to assign Shakespeare to her students. Dusbiber, who teaches in Sacramento, California, argued that undue deference to the Bard excludes “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.” Dusbiber went on to dispute the claim that “a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition,” and wondered why “we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago” when there are more contemporary approaches to uniquely American life on offer in modern literature. Dusbiber also pointed out that there are older literary traditions from around the world we might introduce into curricula in place of Shakespeare if we want to draw on pre-modern sources without lingering too long on the thoughts of old, dead white men.

I agree with Dusbiber that Shakespeare should not be taught to the exclusion of writers of color or contemporary authors: There should be room in a person’s education for encounters with a variety of texts. Dusbiber’s suggestion that a wider sampling of global literature be introduced into high school curricula also seems right to me, as boundaries between cultures grow more porous and the world, in turn, continues to shrink. And she is doubtlessly correct that kids have a hard time connecting with Shakespeare compared to writers who work in our modern vernacular. But the alien distance of Shakespeare’s world is precisely why he deserves a permanent place in the literary canon, especially if one is interested in inculcating a broad social and political imagination into young adults.

Shakespeare’s world, like the worlds of Chaucer, Milton, and the Beowulf poet, was extremely different from ours. It is almost impossible to gather how alien it was from watching films or television shows that are set in his early modern time period, in part because they adopt modern language to render themselves accessible. But language is heavily linked to thought, and in erasing the ambiguities and difficulties of earlier forms of English, one typically winds up glossing over very significant differences in thinking. For this reason, reading the people of the past in their own words when possible and relying on detailed translations otherwise is crucial to coming to grips with the utter difference of prior eras.

Understanding the past—especially its radical divergences from and continuities with the present—is more important than Dusbiber appears to believe. This is true not only of the recent past, with which we share a close and traceable relationship, but also with the very distant past, which can be much more difficult to relate to the way we live now. But the jarring disparities between then and now can open up a political imagination that is foreclosed by living purely within the confines of current social and political thinking. Consider, for example, property rights: What is enshrined in American law as obvious and simple was not so clear in medieval theology and legal theory, where intense debates raged over the nature and purpose of property and its attendant rights.

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. Consider, for example, past understandings of the poor. An 1189 sermon by French theologian Alain de Lille argues Christ could no live among princes, knights, or merchants, becase they live by plunder and greed: “Where then, can Christ live? Only among His paupers.” It is one thing to entertain the thought of such a civilization that doesn’t view poor people as deadbeats, leeches, or shiftless layabouts, and another altogether to peek into the interior lives of people who lived in such a world. Some medievals, for example, thought highly enough of the poor to seek their help in the afterlife: John Aderne, a 14th century English physician, advised that a good doctor “visit of his earnings poor men...that they by their prayers may get him the grace of the Holy Ghost.” None of this is to say that the poor had it better then than now, only to point out that the way poor people are broadly conceived in our society -- as morally corrupt people who take advantage of others -- is not a necessary, logical, or obvious view. And thought experiments don’t do nearly the job that literature does in communicating this fact. The former is generally not so moving as the latter, nor is it as helpful in advancing the idea that the present order is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds.

And there’s another political reason kids should be acquainted with the worlds of bygone years, especially if one is aiming to establish a fairer tomorrow: Politicians frequently invoke the past in their projects, whether that’s recalling the Crusades or praising the Founding Fathers. History classes should equip kids with knowledge of these events, but vintage literature provides a complementary context and texture.

As high schoolers enter into public life, where references to history carry a great deal of political weight, they should be confident enough in their understanding of those mindsets to parry political misuse of the past; they should also be able to understand how statements and events from long ago really connect to present circumstances. The past, in other words, should not be the sole province of those who would go back in time: It can also be a very powerful resource for those with progressive hopes for the future, supposing they do more than dismiss it out of hand.

Eventually, 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.