Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

  1. Sorry to break it to you, Dr.B, but down here in the K-12 trenches, it looks like that ship has sailed.
    I teach at a very selective public arts high school in Socal, where I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to teach a few very committed students, with parents who have in some cases actually had a liberal education and want one, desperately, for their kids too. Nevertheless, this tidal sweep (a fellow PhD and former academic on the faculty with me has succinctly dubbed it “the Kool-aid,” a term which I hope doesn’t require a trigger warning once someone in administration finds out that we’re using a suicidal metaphor–but I digress) has all but engulfed us. Witness three incidents from this week:

    1. A fellow teacher who feels that the 10th grade doesn’t have enough “World lit” represented, balked at the simple suggestion that since the common core does not specify a thematic focus by year, keep the valuable titles (1984, Lord of the Flies, Night, Things Fall Apart) that have worked so well, and simply change the course title to “English 10: Self and Society.” Her non-plussed answer suggested that thinking of the class as something other than a cross-cultural smorgasbord won’t leave her enough to teach, as then she’d have to actually find her way into the themes of works and teach students how to make these connections. Commentary on Achebe’s own ambivalent stance as a child of missionaries fell on deaf multicultural ears.
    2. Recently told in an all-staff meeting that “the whole point of public school after all is to level the playing field,” then the apparently self-evident bromides that “they won’t learn from you if they don’t like you,” and “it’s our job to uplift all students.” (note: none of these generalities defined) An ironic counterpart to the nascent awareness of “emotional reasoning” apparently guiding our panicked and craven college-administrative class, it hadn’t even occurred to our fearless leader that there might be alternative points of view, or that their 2500-year histories might have some actual merit.

    3. Cut Shakespeare from my AP11 class; told administrator that I was utilizing a new grading system (in reality a straightforward system of deliberate grade inflation) that looked at “multiple measures of student learning that went beyond what they demonstrated in assessments of their reading and writing alone.”
    My cynical experiment? amply rewarded with glowing praise for my progressive willingness to try new “student-centered” approaches. Wow. (BTW: we have a theatre department who claims to worship the Bard, though you’d have a hard time finding any class where his texts are actually examined and understood.)

    If these seem slightly far afield from Shakespeare, suffice it to say, it’s worse than you think–this is simply the relevant anecdotalism of THIS WEEK.

    For some time, K-12 have paradoxically been able to use the specter of competitive college admissions to actually squeeze the last remaining opportunities for liberal education into our students. Sadly, now all that’s left, increasingly, is a merely pseudo-Liberal one.

    (PS: The D. Gen–book of the decade on Lib ed. for the general public ; thanks for the good fight)

  2. The best reason I have for reading Shakespeare is similar to that of History or Algebra. To be educated. The skills you learn and keep in schooling are things such as problem solving, how to find and access research, and reading comprehension. The individual elements of the curriculum, however, tend to represent what society feels that one needs to know to be considered educated – not necessarily smart or talented.

    Even if progressives push for a society norm outside of such values, there is another player here – pride. Will they be able to keep the argument for say- American classics such as the Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn (in US schools)? Neither of those aged well in terms of relatability, historic representation, or even readability. I feel the support for such a suggestion will be much sparser.

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