Something is rotten in the ‘common core’


By RALPH SHAFFER

Stephens Media

William Shakespeare is enjoying a good year across America in 2013.

From “Shakespeare in the Park” in Hilo, Hawaii, to Iowa’s “Shakespeare Experience” and North Carolina’s “Shakespeare Festival,” The Bard thrives in the adult world. What, however, is his future in our public schools?

He seems to have it made. Shakespeare is the only author that America’s public high school students must read. That’s specifically mandated in the new federally-imposed English requirements, misnamed the “Common Core state standards.” America’s classic writers, such as Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck, may be included in some English teacher’s reading assignments, but the only one required is that Englishman.

Kids will read Shakespeare, but in what form? They will probably prefer to read a “graphic novel” entitled “Kill Shakespeare,” one of the books on Common Core’s approved reading list. Even a synopsis of “Kill Shakespeare” makes for exhilarating reading. That book will have more appeal to students than Shakespeare’s own works.

Since no specific work by Shakespeare is required, teachers can assign any one they choose. Consequently, it’s unlikely that the standardized test will ask students much more than to correctly select the name of one of his plays. First we memorize our presidents in order, then we memorize the titles of each Shakespeare play.

I’m not a Shakespeare fan. I think we read Macbeth in the eighth grade. I asked seven of my classmates, now all in their mid-80s, if they remembered reading Shakespeare. Not one of them could tell me that we had. But I recall something about Birnam Wood moving to somewhere.

I tried to read another Shakespeare play in junior high. I couldn’t stand his old English and the unusual rhythm of his sentences. I gave it up quickly. The short newspaper pieces every Sunday by Mark Hellinger, sort of an O. Henry for the 1940s, were more my style.

I never saw a Shakespeare play, unless you count “West Side Story” or “Kiss Me Kate.” The worst parts of the latter musical occurred when they actually performed scenes from “Taming of the Shrew.” If Shakespeare had written stuff with the appeal and clarity of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for “West Side Story,” I might have enjoyed him.

Instead, I’ve turned to writing parodies and puns of his most-quoted lines. RhymeZone has a list of 500 of those lines on the Internet. I’m slowly working my way through the list.

Sample: What was the response of the surrogate mother, hired by Julius and Calpurnia to bear their child, when told by Calpurnia on the eve of birth that they no longer wanted the baby and that the expectant mother would have to keep the child?

“I come to bear a Caesar, not to raise him.”

Or, Julius’ comment after he abruptly ended a distasteful phone conversation with a persistently nagging neighbor about a timber company’s plan to log the woodlot near their residences, which Julius opposed:

“The pest is pro-log.”

That’s a lot more fun than struggling through Shakespeare’s outdated language. Perhaps that’s how Shakespeare will come into the Common Core. We won’t force the kids to read any one particular play. Instead, let them pick one, go to RhymeZone, and pun the play’s quotable lines. Turn it into a contest, district-wide.

If today’s secondary students don’t read Shakespeare they won’t be much worse off than my generation. Critics of today’s schools often cite the students of my era as the products of a great educational system that has declined in the last three-quarters of a century. Actually, the kids of the 1930s and ’40s were a lot less savvy than today’s youngsters.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history and an occasional contributor to Stephens Media. Contact him at reshaffer@csupomona.edu.

 

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