Is Shakespeare Too Old and White for Today’s Ethnically Diverse Classes to Study?
California teacher Dana Dusbiber, of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, has written that she refuses to teach Shakespeare to her ethnically diverse students, since she’d rather teach some of the exciting literature they can better identify with. I agree with her that we shouldn’t teach something just because it’s always been taught, but I don’t buy her argument that this old white guy has nothing to teach this generation or people of color about the human condition. Shakespeare’s themes are universal. They are part of this nation’s cultural heritage which does go back to Elizabethan London. Reading Shakespeare also makes the changes in the English language evident. I might add that in Shakespeare’s Othello, the main character is a person of color and the theme of jealousy’s destructiveness is universal.
Ms. Dusbiber doesn’t think white students need to study Shakespeare, either. She thinks they need to be exposed to an ethnically diverse body of literature instead. I wonder which white authors she wants to include in her ethnically diverse body of literature. Does she want to teach the same literature to all ethnic groups? It appears to me that both Dusbiber and Professor Koss of NIU would like to diminish the exposure to white cultural history as much as they can, just as so many professors of education today believe history needs to be rewritten to fit their agendas.
Should There Be a Shared American Culture for All Ethnic Groups?
Those who want to control education and public opinion today evidently don’t see the need for a common American culture. In 1988 E.D. Hirsch Jr. wrote a bestseller called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His book covered 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that every literate American needs to know for communication across generations and ethnic backgrounds. He followed this up with a series of books for parents to help them supplement what their children learn in school at each grade level. I notice he updated the books in this series during this last five years to cover what’s new. He saw lots of holes in the curricula different schools were using that left children culturally illiterate when they graduated. He wrote the books so that parents and teachers could help fill those holes.
Hirsch recognized that if people are to understand each other and work together, they need to have a common culture they all understand. He’s not proposing that those of different ethnic backgrounds ignore or reject their own cultures. Instead he sees that as Americans we all need to understand our American history and form of government and a common body of literature. We need to understand certain math and science concepts. We need to be exposed to the great history of art and music so that if someone mentions Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bach, or Beethoven we know who they are. We need to know the same folk and fairy tales, the same novels, even some of the same Bible stories. As a people we need to understand that culture is more than today’s celebrities and entertainment. Otherwise those in different cultures and generations will have no common frame of reference when they try to communicate.
Hirsch explains this very well in the introductions of his What Your Child Needs to Know books. Just look inside What Your First Grader Needs to Know on Amazon and read the introduction. It will explain why we all need to know some of the same things to have a solid nation. We need to know about both George Washington and George Washington Carver. We need to know both Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman. It’s not either or. You can see the contents for each grade level and samples of some of the content if you take advantage of Amazon’s Look Inside feature. By the time your child learns what is in these books he or she will have learned not just United States history, art, music, and literature, but also that of other cultures. You will see plenty in these books you didn’t learn in school either, and if you did, you probably won’t remember much of it.
As I write this the media is full of news about racial violence and hate crimes. A young white racist has just shot nine innocent Americans in a prayer meeting at the historic black Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston. Major cities have been embroiled in race riots. Self-serving politicians are trying do divide Americans by emphasizing their differences to promote their own agendas. We need more than ever to see that we share a common humanity and build ties to a common American culture.
We need to be able to relate to a common body of cultural knowledge. It is not white , Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or black culture, but American culture. All of us will need to expand our own horizons and read some books about people who don’t look like us so we can better understand each other. None of us should remain isolated in any ethnic culture. Once again we need to unite and work together so that we all have richer and longer lives.