Calif. Teacher Stirs Controversy by Taking Shakespeare Off Syllabus

By Maggie DeBlasis — July 01, 2015 3 min read
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“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Except that these days, when it comes to Shakespeare, it may be more like to read or not to read, to teach or not to teach.

In a Washington Post blog earlier this month, a California English teacher publicly explained her dislike of famous playwright William Shakespeare and why she doesn’t teach it in her classes. And, as one might expect considering she essentially criticized one of the most taught authors in our school systems, the post caused quite a stir.

Dana Dusbiber, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, argued that the Bard’s works don’t reflect the cultural perspectives needed in today’s classrooms.

“If we only teach students of color, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, 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,” she wrote.

On her class reading lists, Dusbiber has replaced the works of Shakespeare with nonwhite authors whose works discuss many of the same themes, according to a follow-up news piece in the Sacramento Bee. Her objective, she says, is to expand on the impressions her majority-nonwhite students might get from only reading the perspectives of a 451-year-old English white man.

But others have countered Shakespeare does in fact address issues that remain relevant to today. One commenter on the Post blog noted that students “foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience.” They feel discrimination, jealousy, and rage, just as the playwright’s characters do.

“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,’” the commenter, a South Carolina English teacher, wrote.

Christine Baker, an English teacher at a nearby Sacramento high school, told the Bee Shakespeare’s way with words can be tough for students to grasps, but Dusbiber’s view is “preposterous.” She said she has found ways, such as through performance, to make the plays more accessible to students and see how they reflect and can inform their own lives.

Still others defend Dusbiber’s approach as necessary to creating more inclusive curricula.

“Shakespeare is a lot to handle and manage. Students need to see themselves and be more engaged in the work,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that supports culturally responsive instruction. “I think what she did is valid.”

Costello said that, in general, school reading lists aren’t as diverse as they should be to resonate with today’s students and expand their understanding of the world, with many still largely comprised of works by men. Literary works selected for language arts classes should “be a window into others’ lives” while also “mirroring what [students’ lives] are,” Costello said.

In a March post on the Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network, meanwhile, Mark Powell, associate director of the Salisbury Playhouse in England, offered a different kind of defense of removing the Bard from school reading lists. In his view, schools today just don’t have the time or resources needed to do the plays justice, with the result that studying them becomes mechanical and “confusing.”

“A well-meaning English teacher can take a student through the meaning of every word in a sentence and it soon becomes a drawn out and confusing process,” Powell writes.

A report released in April by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that Shakespeare may be losing favor in U.S. college classrooms, too, with only four of 52 American universities studied requiring English majors to take a Shakespeare class. But don’t expect to see him disappear completely from high schools anytime soon: His work is interwoven into a number of Common Core State Standards.

Image from Books18 on Flickr Creative Commons

For more on Shakespeare in education:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.