“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” The lines spoken by Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 2 are among the most powerful words ever penned by William Shakespeare. It was a moment in the play where Hamlet lamented over what man aspires to be versus what they, in fact, become. Words applicable to the present battles waging over literature in the classroom, including his.
Since his death more than 400 years ago, Shakespeare remains regarded as the best-selling fiction author of all time with an estimated four billion copies of his work sold. The Elizabethan playwright is unrivaled for his portrayal of the human condition. It’s cruelty, drudgery, glories, humor, and tragedies – illustrating the ideal conscience and commonality all people share regardless of class or position. He’s even a fairly good historian. Geoffrey Chaucer may be regarded as the founding father of the English language and literature, but it’s Shakespeare who made it immortal.
Thus, it was a shock to learn Cambridge University – the second oldest such institution in the English-speaking world and located less than a hundred miles from the icon’s grave-site – decided, due to sensitivity issues, to put warning labels on academic lectures of his work because they contain “potentially distressing topics” and could include discussions of “sexual violence and sexual assault.”
The same week Biloxi, Mississippi’s school board became the latest one to announce it was removing Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their junior high’s required reading list because of sensitivity issues to its use of a racial epithet that made people uncomfortable. National outrage restored it to the reading list with the Orwellian compromise students have to ask to participate and bring a permission slip from parents to read it.
Earlier this month, children’s author Dr. Seuss came under fire for an illustration of a Chinese character in a museum mural. Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice” has even been called into question for its reinforcement of gender roles and insensitive stereotypes of women’s dependence upon men for money and social status.
School boards’ cleverly worded escape clause is their actions only remove books from a classroom and not from the public domain. “It remains in the library and available for students who wish to read it.” They’re correct. Instead, they’ve soiled the title, endangered its use at other schools, and given students a reason not to read it.
These incidents have turned into an outright guerilla war against western culture – no different from one waged on a battlefield. Antagonists hitting a tactical weakness, only fighting battles they know they can win, and succeeding by turning the enemy’s weapons against them. In this case, a highly evolved sense of western morality gleaned from centuries of hands-on exploration, discovery, failures, and tragedies. One chronicled through the lenses of objective study, religious faiths, moral teachings and taught in classrooms with its errors alongside the glories. No other civilization’s language arts have produced such a conscientious account of its past.
Classic literature is its easiest target because great books mirror the time in which they were written – prejudices and all. Discrediting and removing one from educational circulation is the same as tearing down a statue, but, rather than taking a stand to defend them or a profession they’re charged to protect, educational administrators simply capitulate to the demands with little or no resistance – more fearful of public opinion than the consequences of abdicating their responsibility to preserving a public trust.
It sets a poor example for Americans at large and shows a complete disconnect from the students they’re charged to teach. Generations who grew up with a host of violent video games like the 20-year old “Grand Theft Auto” where rewards are given for criminal activities, including beating and killing prostitutes and policemen. YouTube tutorials easily available to unlock encoded cheats that let them advance in the game. Modern popular music with its alliteration of profanity, gender and racial slurs is commonplace – proving the mature themes of Shakespeare and other literary greats pale in comparison to those encountered in students’ day-to-day life.
More alarming is the actions are often the result of one parent or a small group that has little to do with education. Questionable in many cases if they even read the book they’re trying to remove. The voices of good educators opposed to it are often drowned out in the public media tantrums or shouted down.
A hard truth in human civilization are the facts that there is no race on earth who doesn’t have a slur attached to them and no race that hasn’t at one time or another been enslaved or practiced slavery. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a literal black and white American story, but a metaphorical one desperately needed in a nation comprised of all races and creeds – regardless of sensitivities.
To paraphrase Atticus Finch, a man who cheats another man because of the color of his skin no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that man is trash. Removing the Harper Lee classic from classrooms because of racial slurs cheats students of an invaluable lesson in western culture.