Why Do We Force Students to Read Shakespeare?

As time goes on, perhaps even the CollegeBoard will realize that they should focus more on modern applications than classical ones, and perhaps one day more of the novels high school students read can be similar to contemporary novels and works.
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English teachers seem to adore Shakespeare.... Students seem to chug through it.... Everyone else in society sits questioning why our English teachers force our students to read literature by a guy who lived 500 years ago, who writes in barely recognizable English, and whose plays are painfully predictable? Now don't get me wrong: I enjoyed many Shakespeare plays throughout school (unlike the vast majority of my peers), but it seems counterproductive not to spend more time studying modern authors, modern advertising/print-making, and contemporary journalism. Not only would this latter scenario help students in this age more able to grasp the seemingly abstract culture of today, but it would also assist them in more technical fields such as business and engineering....

On the other hand, contemporary novels such as The Great Gatsby are modern enough that students will be able to appreciate the "slang" (i.e. contemporary language), contain enough complex & meaningful language to be worthwhile, and contain plot lines that students can directly relate to (after all, which occurs more often in our modern culture: an evil brother pouring poison into his brother's ear to seize the throne--as in Hamlet--or a woman being arrested for prostitution and heroin accounts--as in more contemporary Let the Great World Spin?).

It seems that the only reason that students today read Shakespeare is that some person in a governmental institution a few hundred miles away decided that they should. And every one listened. With very little reason.

Why? The governmental officer may argue that Shakespeare is essential to understanding the literary influences of modern English, or that reading Hamlet helps students appreciate literary devices, or even something more absurd along the lines of "we've always done it, and it seems to work, so why not continue?" But what scientific evidence is there that reading Shakespeare helps students in the modern age survive the work environment, live without government aid, and achieve familial goals? Very little....

We have been teaching Shakespeare for decades, and sure it works, but unless we try something different, who's to say the new system won't work better? Without doubt, we cannot expect different results by continuing the same curriculum.

Truly, forcing students to do something in which they have so little interest will most probably result in students not reading or contemplating--the main goal of English--the books at all. On the other hand, reading more of the modern equivalent of Shakespeare will not only acclimate students to the literature that they will be immersed in every single day of their lives, but it will also be more relatable (and hence, students are more likely to fully read and contemplate the book).

Why? People care most about the things that intrinsically motivate them. On the other hand, they will most probably input little to no work or innovative thinking into something that they really don't care about. For example, even though a poet may be able to sit down and do well on tests, she will probably do the bare minimum needed to succeed, whereas she will input blood, sweat, and tears while writing poetry.

And as shocking as it may be, since video-games/video/news of our modern age seem to stress the high amounts of violence/crime, students (even those in higher level classes) are more likely to sit up and listen for stories that they can relate to and find interesting. For instance, they are more likely to relate to a book if a love-torn couple rams a yellow vehicle into a woman and kill her (as occurs in the relatively modern The Great Gatsby), than if a love-torn woman just happens to fall into a river, drowns, and no one sees (as occurs in Hamlet).

Why? The latter scenario doesn't happen very often today, but car accidents--especially those involving drunk couples--are not uncommon. The former is more relatable, interesting, and contemporary. Indeed, contemporary novels like Let the Great World Spin contain just as much literary benefits as the Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet does, but the fact that students simply cannot relate to the latter as much as they will about the former seems to reject the hypothesis that Shakespeare is absolutely vital to our English curriculum. Why spend time doing something that many students will even not complete (let alone enjoy)?

So we've hit a wall: sure there may be more benefits to reading modern literature than there are to reading Shakespeare, but how many teachers will actually change their course? Probably very few.... Why? They've thought Shakespeare all their lives; it would require them to input vast loads of work to design a new curriculum; and the modern institution seems to "work." So why change? And how would we change?

Here's a proposal: teach Shakespeare to the extent that all students are working to understand the material, but decrease the aggregate amount. Simultaneously, increase focus on modern advertising, difficult economic/scientific/opinion articles in media such as NYTimes, WSJ, HuffPost, and modern novels.

As time goes on, perhaps even the CollegeBoard will realize that perhaps they should focus more on modern applications than classical ones, and perhaps one day more of the novels high school students read can be similar to contemporary novels and works.

About the Author:

Rajat Bhageria is the author of What High School Didn't Teach Me: A Recent Graduate's Perspective on How High School is Killing Creativity. Additionally, he is the founder of ThirdEye and is currently a student at UPenn. Find out more about Rajat at his personal blog: RajatBhageria.com

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