Shakespeare is for Children

Chandos Portrait thought to be of Shakespeare

Chandos Portrait thought to be of Shakespeare

April 23 is traditionally held to be both the birthday and death day of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). To commemorate the day, I thought I’d rant a little about what seems to be a growing neglect of the works of Shakespeare in the U. S. school curriculum.

There seems to be a trend away from requiring every student to study at least one Shakespeare play in secondary school. According to a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, there’s no guarantee that even college English majors will take a course in the works of Shakespeare before graduating. In the words of the 2007 survey, only 15 [of 70 top U.S. universities] require their English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.

I suppose one can always hope that any student desiring to major in English will want to take courses in the works of Shakespeare whether required or not.

Considering how much the language of Shakespeare’s plays has contributed to modern language and literature, it’s hard to understand this devaluing of Shakespeare in American education.

One factor is the yearly “dumbing down” of the English curriculum. Dropping traditional content is seen as “embracing diversity.” An irony of U.S. education is the tendency of administrators to encourage students to pursue courses in calculus and advanced technology while allowing the English curriculum to degenerate to a “functional” type of literacy that will enable students to use software programs to produce written work.

Another reason that Shakespeare study is no longer a requirement for all students is student resistance. In a “student-centered” classroom, the wishes of the students are paramount. We’ve all seen the supposedly humorous television references to vegetables, chiefly broccoli, that imply that all children hate them. Pretty soon even children who like broccoli probably refuse to eat it for fear of ridicule from their peers.

A lot of educators seem to view Shakespeare as the curricular equivalent of broccoli. They keep the plays away from children until they’re half-grown, and then utter Shakespeare’s name in solemn tones. No wonder students get the idea that the plays are not something they can expect to enjoy, but somethng disagreeable that is “good for them.”

There’s no reason in the world that children should have to wait until high school to begin their acquaintance with Shakespeare. First graders can be given coloring sheets of Bottom with his donkey’s ears and told the story about the mischief caused by Puck.

Stained glass coloring book available from Dover Books

Stained glass coloring book available from Dover Books

Children of elementary age have no difficulty relating to the practical joke played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Simple lyrics from the plays, like the seasonal picture of Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost, are well within the grasp of young children. Upper elementary students can enjoy studying and acting selected scenes from the comedies.

An acquaintance with the characters, stories, and language of Shakespeare is the birthright of every English-speaking child. Parents need to see that it’s not denied their children.

Here is a series of articles I’ve written about Shakespeare’s language for Daily Writing Tips:
Shakespeare Movies
Famous lines from Hamlet
Book Titles Based on Shakespeare quotations
Quotations behind the titles

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M. J. Maddox, PhD 
is the American English Doctor.  
 

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