Great literature saves lives.
From great books, children learn that the world around them can be vastly different from their own experience. Books can change the equation, alter the trajectory of a child’s life and guide them towards a future of endless possibility.
Alternately, the forced reading of an archaic or stale classic can build within a child a lifelong reluctance to read. Moreover, it can result in missed opportunities to introduce a child to stories that resonate with them and help them navigate in an interconnected and diverse society.
Yet time and time again we see it. Our parents slogged through it, we slept through it and today our children’s spines are in danger of permanent curvature as they slouch desperately in their chairs shrinking away from the torture of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Not only do today’s students fail to connect to these two ardent teenagers, they also do not relate to the story itself and the Elizabethan language deepens the alienation.
High school English teacher Dana Dusbiber believes that Shakespeare should be removed from the curriculum entirely. That there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of her ethically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.
Grand Valley State University student Kelsey May, majoring in writing and minoring in English elucidates her very personal disconnect with her own Romeo and Juliet experience in high school. As an avid reader and modern-day student she finds Shakespeare to be whiny, unrealistic and boring.
Is it possible that Shakespeare is only assigned because he should be assigned? In other words, we read to keep the status quo, because it’s what has always been done?
What does this say to students of today? Demographics have changed. White students only account for 24.6 percent of K-12 enrollment, the Latin population is growing at a rapid pace, and as of 2014 disabled students account for 13 percent of all enrollments. Where are the stories of emerging populations of African, Latin, Asian, or Native American’s? Where are women’s voices? Or the voices of those with disabilities? Why should we cling to ONE MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago? To the exclusion of other cultural perspectives? To the exclusion of a world that bears little to no resemblance to Shakespeare’s world 450 years ago?
Ira Glass once said “Shakespeare sucks” in a now infamous tweet.
In the context of forced reading I agree with him. However, the backlash was incredible. And led to The Scourge of Relatability, a rather prosaic piece on the demise of critical capacities in favor of birthing the selfie-stick of relatability. Apparently to not appreciate the virtues of Shakespeare is social suicide.
Is it wrong to want to relate to a character or a story? To see a reflection of yourself and the world you actually live in? Is relatable literature somehow of less value? Is critical thinking lost on John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars? Written in a kid-tested English-teacher approved language. And like Romeo and Juliet a story of star-crossed lovers?
Why not offer other classics, whose timelessness resides in relatable characters and issues that are at the forefront of today’s concerns? To Kill a Mockingbird, explores race and racism in America through the eyes of a young girl in the south, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not only a coming of age story, but also one that voices the struggles immigration at the turn of the century. Too there are culture rich novels like The Kite Runner, The House on Mango Street, or Girl in Translation.
We no longer live in a world where reading books is something only the affluent can afford. And in our deeply connected, diverse and globalized society we need to create children who can explore the complexities of our world, the beauty and the tragedy; children who can empathize across all human boundaries; and through great literature we can do this. So I ask you, is Shakespeare really the best way to connect our children to today’s human condition?