Why should we teach Shakespeare to high school kids?


I have the dubious distinction of having at one time served on a local public school board.  At a meeting one night, the other board members and I somehow got into a discussion of Shakespeare.  The sense of the group was that it made little sense to waste students’ time with the study of such arcane material.

I was flabbergasted.

To be sure, I am no Shakespeare scholar.  I have never acted in one of his plays, and certainly do not contend that I have read his complete works.

But I wish I had.

Shakespeare’s writing to me is a touchstone of literary genius for anyone who reads or writes the English language.  If we come to the point in public education where his works aren’t taught, we will have deprived generations of students of a fundamental learning experience.

It’s almost like saying that the King James Bible is passe.

Come on now. Be real.

Are you telling me that “Whatssup?” is really on the same level with “To be or not to be, that is the question”?

When I was in high school, shortly after the American Civil War, we had to read Julius Caesar and MacBeth, as well as  a selection of the Bard’s sonnets. I suppose I was like most of my classmates who pushed back from the exercise.  But as I became acquainted with the master’s work, I realized that there was something there that didn’t exist in other writing.

I still can’t tell you why his works touch me so, but I know they do.

Take Sonnet 116, for instance:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediment. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no. It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

You can’t speed read that.  Every line contains an insight into what it means to be human.

Maybe that is part of the problem with education today. We hear reports that our pupils are ill-prepared to compete with China and other nations  when it comes to math and science. On the heels of that statistic, we revamp our curricula to require more advanced math and science courses.

I have no argument with that approach, unless we make those revisions to the detriment of the arts.  Two plus two equals four all right, but what equals insight into the core values of humanity?  Is it the best thing to teach our kids how to design computer games, if we don’t also instill in them the desire to read books or visit art museums?

Just think of what we will be missing if our children don’t realize that “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come.”


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