Is It For Everybody?

Beware, this is more a philosophical question than a Shakespeare one, but the subjects overlap.

I’ve worked for two educational startups, both that deal with getting kids into college.

One boss had the vision that *every* kid should potentially go to college, and the fact that they don’t is attributable to a failed system (on many fronts – the student’s as well as the system’s).

The other boss, disagrees, and makes the case that for some people, college is simply not the right path, and sometimes even seen as a negative.  It’s been mentioned more than once that up here in Massachusetts, “We don’t ask if you went to college, we ask where you went to college.” But it’s a big world, and there are plenty of places in the US where “went to college” is a bad thing in the “you think you better than me?” sort of way.

I’m not really sure where I fall on that spectrum, and that’s not really what I want to argue.

What I want to do is apply that same spectrum to the question of Shakespeare.  Is Shakespeare for everybody?  If someone doesn’t “get” Shakespeare, is that just the result of a system that failed to properly explain it?  Or should we just accept the fact that some folks are not meant for Shakespeare, and nothing we can do will change that?

Note that I am not talking about those who spend significant effort researching the topic and then come up with a stance on why they don’t *like* it.  That’s like someone who goes to college, finds nothing there, and quits.  I’m talking about the ones that never even get that far – the ones who are unable (unwilling?) to see any value in the subject for themselves, and thus put no effort into pursuing it.


8 thoughts on “Is It For Everybody?

  1. Every school year, I taught at least one Shakespeare text in each of my classes, from sonnets in sixth grade through multiple plays in high school, and I made sure that every student in my classes "got it." They might not have liked it, but even those who struggled with the archaic pronouns and blank verse eventually came to an understanding of the text. Sure, I had classes in which I had to spend an entire hour explaining the difference between thee, thou, thy, and thine, as well as the verb conjugates that followed, and I cannot count the number of times I was asked, "Well, why didn't Shakespeare just say ____ instead of all this stupid poetry?" There were students who thought that Hamlet was an absolutely pointless play in which "everybody dies," that Romeo and Juliet were a pair of dumb teenagers who deserved to die, and that Shakespeare was an idiot to have named a play after Julius Caesar when Brutus and Cassius were the main characters, but even those arguments show that even such students were able to comprehend Shakespeare even if they did not appreciate the works (just as I cannot appreciate Faulkner). Shakespeare is only truly challenging when it's presented as a challenge. After all, the plays were written for the groundlings as much as for the aristocracy–and students absolutely LOVE hunting for the dirty jokes, once you hint to them that the jokes are there, of course.

  2. There's a new educational initiative that's been adopted by 44 states. It's called the Common Core State Standards initiative, and it's a list of what students should understand and be able to do by the end of each grade. It's scheduled to be put into effect largely by 2015.

    The idea is that students should be either ready for college or ready to begin a career by the end of high school. So there is no expectation that all students will go to college, but they should be prepared to do whatever it is they're going to do.

    As for reading selections, the Common Core uses the idea of text complexity. They don't dictate what selections a teacher must choose, but the selections should be within a prescribed range of complexity that is appropriate for that grade.

    No one particular author is mandated. Oh wait, no. There is one particular author who is required reading in Grades 11 and 12. I will leave speculation as to that particular author's name as an exercise for the reader.

    All I will say is that it's a happy day for people whose background is in teaching that particular author. 🙂


    The Shakespeare Teacher

  3. It's my pleasure.

    More specifically, look at this document.

    Go to page 38, and check out the Grades 11-12 column, items 4 and 7.

    Are the works of Shakespeare for everybody? The Common Core says Yes!

  4. It's sort of like asking, Is the beauty of quantum physics for everybody? I can conceptualize *why* it might be attractive for some. I can't begin to appreciate it like a mathematician. Nor can I become interested in it further than the cursory glance it might take to grasp the concept of its possible usefulness. Likewise, is Beethoven, or classical music in general, for that matter, for everyone?

    Short answer–no. You can bring a horse to water…

  5. JM, would you go so far as to say that you are unable to attain a deeper grasp of those things, or that you do not see the value in pursuing them farther?

    If it is the former, then I'd think we have to deal with that question in our students, what should we do with the ones who are just fundamentally incapable of understanding it?

    If it's the latter, then I think the question can still be discussed as those proponents of the beauty of quantum mechanics will want to tell you that you just haven't "seen the light" let, and that if somebody taught you differently, you would.

    Richard Feynman, by the way, gave a series of genius lectures on literally this exact topic. As an accomplished painter and quantum physicist he was often brought into debates about the nature of beauty, which is one step removed from the metaphysical discussion of value and quality.

  6. I think that sometimes people have to see how Shakespeare can be for them. You have to help those who need it past the language (with teaching, with presentation, whatever) so they can see – Tybalt has an anger management problem. Everyone knows someone like that. Mercutio is a partykid who can't stop making stupid choices, even if s/he's a good person (that's my read), and so on.

    Once you establish the characters as relatable, it's my experience that people soften up. Most people.

  7. Great questions, Duane.

    As far as grasping the concepts, I'm not sure how far I'd get with quantum mechanics–I never really liked math to begin with, so…But I did get involved in other things when I went back to college; things I never thought I'd have the capacity for (or have a real interest in) and did very well at them, to the point of being offered sponsorship to study and assist at Columbia. But I *wanted* to study those things at the time.

    But that doesn't mean I don't see the value in pursuing any subject further. I'm just not personally interested in doing it as related to the quantum stuff. I'm not attracted to it enough. I was, however, deeply attracted to literature and philosophy in school (but NOT Shakespeare at the time). This, I think, may have something to do with your thought about it not being presented to me properly–I didn't "see the light". This is the reason for my quest to get it to students earlier with a different approach. But even then, when I'm obviously successful in doing so, there are those who don't take to it as much as others.
    The capacity to understand Shakespeare, to a certain level can, I think, be taught. Pursuing it further and really embracing it is, I believe, ultimately a matter of taste. –As is beauty, in my opinion.

    I don't know if I fully answered your questions–probably not–they're tough ones, to be sure. 🙂

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