On Saturday, the Washington Post ran a guest editorial by a Sacramento schoolteacher that militates against assigning the works of Shakespeare to American high school students based on the fact that he was white.
The piece by Dana Dusbiber begins with a confession: “I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest [sic] in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is 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, who is herself white, says she avoids “Hamlet” and the other 36 plays, not to mention the sonnets, because her minority students shouldn’t be expected to study a ”a long-dead, British guy.” And while Shakespeare is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest English writer ever to live, Dusbiber says he only is regarded that way because “some white people” ordained it and that he can easily be replaced.
“Why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior?” she suggests. “Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions … perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”
To bolster her case for dumping the Bard, Dusbiber says that minority students, like those who dominate her own classroom, deserve to study their own cultures rather than being exposed to “Eurocentrism.” But at the same time, she takes the exact opposite position for whites, saying school should be a place for them to explore cultures other than their own:
If we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives. I admit that this proposal, that we leave Shakespeare out of the English curriculum entirely, will offend many.
Despite holding an English degree and describing herself as a voracious reader, Dusbiber’s desire to purge the dusty old Bard from her classroom is partly based on her own difficulties reading him, which is more an indictment of her than it is of the poet.
While Post education reporter Valerie Strauss, under whose byline the article appears, notes that Dusbiber’s view “is shared by a lot of people in and out of education,” the piece has stirred a fiery and mostly hostile debate. Late yesterday, Strauss published a rebuttal from another English teacher, who argues that it’s absurd to throw Shakespeare into the trash simply because he’s very dead and very white.
“Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love … ?” The rebuttal asks rhetorically, before proceeding:
Or feel jealousy or rage? Or fall victim to discrimination? Or act desperately out of passion? To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as ‘NOW.’
Putting aside Dusbiber’s prejudice toward Shakespeare (which presumably extends to other white dead male writers), she as a veteran teacher should have some awareness that her wish to make literature more inclusive was granted decades ago. Pick up at random a copy of any high school literature text published in the last fifty years, and you will discover works by Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, and just about any other culture you can name. Consider this Grade 9 “sampler” of Prentice Hall Literature, which features writings by Maya Angelous, Ama Ata Aidoo, Julia Alvarez, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Wayson Choy, Amy Tan, Toni Cade Bambara, and more. Shakespeare? Yeah, he’s there, too, though he doesn’t turn up until page 734.
This report, by Blake Neff, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation. Howard Portnoy contributed to this report.