Shakespeare haters have been responding to the Beware of March 15 item about simplifying Shakespeare in last week's column.  

Reader 1: I wonder about people who can read Shakespearean language. Why did they spend so much time learning Shakespeare when they could have been studying something useful? Snobbery is about the only reason I can come up with.

Another reader thought practicality should come first: It's doubtful if most employers need or desire  their employees to be capable of speaking in Shakespearean phrases.

Here's another from a (non-teaching) California school district employee: Sorry to have to tell you that this science major does not share your view about the value of liberal studies, especially shakespear [sic]. As an adult returning to complete my degree, I nearly choked when I came across "required" subjects that were supposed to broaden my horizons. It got so bad that I became beligerant to the point of almost being asked to leave, but I had to keep questioning why-oh-why is this required for a computer major? (I am now in my fifties and still do not read novels or go to operas--this does not make me bad, just different. Oh, by the way, my poor life is not deprived because I simply don¹t understand any of it).

I paid for my education, out of my own pocket. All I could do in those classes was calculate the cost of each minute, until an instructor made the mistake of calling on me in front of the class. It seems he had written a poem on the board. The poem was somehow comparing a B17 in WWII to a woman giving birth when it released its bombload (or at least that is what the navigator of this plane was writing about).

When asked what I thought, I replied: If I was the pilot in a wartime, killing situation, and my navigator was doing this kind of nonsense, I would turn the controls over to the copilot, pull out my .45, shoot the S.O.B., then throw him out with the bombs. Needless to say, the class laughed and the instructor asked me to stay after class. Before he could say anything, I stuck my face right into his and said: The college got their money; you can¹t hurt my GPA; you give me a C and you will never see me again. He said: "DEAL." I did something similar in linguistics, though with a bit more subtlety.

A chemist writes: If I gave my next seminar to our customers in "Shakespearean English," do you think I would be praised for my strong grasp of the language or simply fired? My guess would be the latter. I couldn't stand Shakespeare in high school or college, but now that it has been translated into a language that someone can actually use in the real world, maybe I'll read some too. 

By the way, I do acknowledge that, much like Latin, there are certain people (historians, language scholars) who would actually find understanding dead languages useful. But for the rest of us...

Shakespeare's English is a dead language? Most high school students read a few Shakespeare plays in the original, with help from footnotes, and enjoy it. More or less. The question is whether those who can't read real Shakespeare should be given simplified Shakespeare, or should we stop pretending and give them a nice, easy, modern author. And admit that poor readers are not on track for college success.

Social Promotion

Drop-outs blame social promotion for their inability to handle high school, says the New York Post. More students are repeating ninth grade, says the Christian Science Monitor. On the other hand, making students repeat the same program they've just failed doesn't work very well either, say opponents of New York Mayor Bloomberg's policy of retaining third graders.

A Matter of Opinion

In "child-centered" U.S. classrooms, students feel they're equal to the teacher, writes Reform K12, which quotes an urban math teacher:

Just this week I had a number of 12th grade students (who had all attended the same elementary school) insist that a 40x30 rectangle was, in fact, a square. In fact, the only thing they wanted to call a rectangle was a right-angled quadrilateral with dramatically different heights and widths, like a door or a chalkboard. If the height was close to the width (like a 4:3 TV screen ratio, or even an 8.5x11 sheet of paper) they insisted it was a square.

But here's the kicker: when I tried to actually teach the correct definition of a square, students refused to listen, because they acted like it was just my opinion.

I've encountered quite a few people who can't distinguish between fact and opinion or between assertion and argument.

Letters

Morgan Smiley of Indianapolis, Ind., writes:

If kids can now learn Shakespeare without Shakespeare getting in the way, does that mean we can also learn math without those pesky numbers getting in the way too?? How far will we lower the bar for education? How stupid and under-educated will we allow our kids (and fellow adults) to be in this country? Why do we continue to lower the standards in order to accommodate the poorest performers instead of raising the standards in order to challenge those that have the capacity for it? 

We are a country of whiners. We whine when we feel bad, which is why Nashville decided to do away with posting the names of honor rolls students: The stupid kids might feel bad. We expect a world in which we are given everything; we believe we are entitled to it. Americans think this is a country of equal results [instead of] equal opportunity. Somehow, minimal (no) effort now translates into equal results. No need to work for that "A," Just show up to class and you automatically get one, lest the school get hit with a lawsuit for making the tardy, stupid kid feel bad. 

Debora Thomas of the University of Louisville says:

I was quite surprised to read about the girl whose 3.0 earned her a Cadillac truck. I am curious what the result would have been if her parents had insisted on a 4.0 instead. I think that American affluence has a direct impact on education. It seems to me, with my limited experience, that the students who do very well are not financially compensated by their parents.  They receive more prestigious rewards that have no dollar amounts.

Tom Carr of Marietta, Ga., says:

Living just outside of Atlanta and witnessing the inane acts by both the people and elected officials of that city, I can confidently predict that students will do no better with the new "modern language" Shakespeare course. Perhaps they should take the next step, Shakespeare in rap: "To live or b*tchin' die, yo, yo, that is the prob, ho, that is the prob."

Chuck Gollnick of Sherwood, Ore., writes:

When I was in school, every classroom was equipped with a book called a "dictionary."  If, in the course of reading, one ran across a word that one didn't understand -- "ides," perhaps -- one could look it up in that dictionary and learn the pronunciation and meaning.  Very often, this had the side effect of increasing one's vocabulary.

Carl Fahringer og Taylorsville, K.Y., writes:

Shakespeare challenged us to consider "what's in a name?" so we can now call a stinkweed a rose and call what used to be very basic general science "chemistry" or "physics." We may put "Introduction to" in front of it so the counselors can distinguish it from the class that really teaches the subject, but we're still showing the legislators and journalists that we're teaching this higher-level science.

As for the paraphrased literature, we've updated the old "Classic Comic Books" and "Cliff's Notes" by substituting movies for plays and novels and having the teacher read the short story to the kids in many classes. 

We don't have to give up like this, but if the kids who refuse to read don't make good grades, it is the teacher who's in trouble.

Harry Potter has shown that most of our kids have some reading skills. Many have mastered Tolkien just as their parents did. Now we need to the will to stop accepting a dumbed-down curriculum and to expose our young people to the great ideas in the great books.

Harry Onickel of Ferndale, Mich., says: 

Four years ago, when I began teaching a phonetic-based language arts method to my fifth grade "urban" public school class, we ended the year by reading Romeo and Juliet together. Some couldn't read at all at the beginning of the year, but when they heard me read passages from the play, they begged to read it. Because of explicit phonics instruction I gave them in the beginning of the year, they were able to read the real thing. Getting students interested in Shakespeare is easy if they are proficient readers.

L. Alan Kudravy of Hawthorne, Calif., writes:

The real problem with dumbing down students is not the fact that they will lose the richness of intellectual pursuit (that's PC for enjoying learning). The real problem is simply this: The kids that are allowed to pass classes without real merit will be the designers and leaders of our future technical and social infrastructure. 

For example, on your next flight cross-country, consider the fact that a kid that could barely read or was taught math by an unqualified history major may well have designed safety critical systems on your plane. You know, I'm way more concerned about that than if a terrorist is sitting next to me. I can fight back against a terrorist, but I can't do beans about a design flaw that causes an engine to fall off!

Michael Miller of Thousand Oaks, Calif., says: 

College isn't for everyone, whether due to aptitude or desire. Lowering the standards doesn't help. Perhaps, the increased costs of community colleges will provoke some younger people to think about apprenticeship programs.  

 

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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