Evolution as Shakespeare


Hello readers! I’m back from my travels and ready to start writing again. I’ll start with a debate that occurred right before I left. The Washington Post published an English teacher who argued we shouldn’t teach Shakespeare in high school:

I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do…I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.”

Now imagine if a science teacher had written: “I am not supposed to dislike evolution, but I do. I do not believe learning natural selection will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand physics or engineering. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has ‘always been done that way.'”

Megan McCardle offered a brilliant response that, if you substitute ‘evolution’ for ‘writing’, could have been lifted from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. An extended excerpt:

Why are we putting this clear majority of the American people through something they find so distasteful? In fact, these essays do seem to have a theory of why we do this; it’s just that this theory is not clearly stated or defended and, I submit, could not be clearly defended if it were clearly stated…

And yet, we still have to make the case for teaching people to read modern literature. It’s not as if this is a life skill that many people will employ after they pass their last lit final. Only about half of all Americans read a book for pleasure last year, and most of them were not reading “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” I feel quite confident in stating that you can read “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Hunger Games” without ever having dipped a toe in anything written before 1995. And please don’t tell me that doing so would make people better readers or writers: Explicitly identifying imagery, allusions, themes and influences is a life skill that is mostly only useful if you are going to spend a lot of time sitting in English classes, and the writing style that you can pick up by reading any sort of literature is only useful if you are going to become a fiction writer, a journalist or a critic. For the everyday sorts of reading and writing that most people do, their civics text is probably a more useful tutor than anything they will see in their English classes…

Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class. But for most people, I doubt it much matters whether you teach Shakespeare or something else. Either way, they are going to forget it as soon as they walk out of the classroom door for the last time. But don’t feel too bad, English teachers: Most of them ditch history and algebra and chemistry just as fast. As adults, they’ll get what they need of those subjects the same way they get everything else: by watching YouTube videos.

Just as with Shakespeare, people don’t ‘need’ evolution as a life skill. They’ll get by just fine without it. Really they will.



  1. Agreed that people can get by without evolution just as well as they can get by without Shakespeare. However I do think that Shakespeare is exceptionally brilliant and astute and beautiful, and that depriving students of exposure to him can only be to their loss.

        1. Just to be clear…I’m not saying that Shakespeare/evolution being mandatory is wrong. Just that there could be reasonable disagreement.

          With that, you could say that while schooling is necessary, we should have the bare minimum requirements and leave individual communities to decide the rest. So beyond literacy/numeracy, everything is open.

          And who gets to choose the ‘given fields?’ What criteria do we decide what is ‘best’? If usefulness is the metric, then best would mean something completely different.

  2. This is interesting and I wonder which argument is being made or if two arguments are being conflated.

    On the one hand, I agree. Shakespeare shouldn’t necessarily be required because I contend that he may or may not be “the best.” There were other playwrights during his time (Marlowe, Jonson, etc.) who wrote excellent plays. And thankfully, I have a local theatre in my town that will sometimes do some of the plays from contemporaries of Shakespeare. I think what is true is that we have a larger body of works surviving from Shakespeare than from any of his contemporaries which has led to a larger number of themes in Shakespearean plays and even larger range of vocabulary (due to this larger body of work). So sometimes, I wonder what we mean by “the greatest” or “the best.” Yes, he has had the greatest INFLUENCE on modern culture than the others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that if you take a random Shakespearean play and compare it to random Marlowe play that you would find Shakespeare’s play comparably greater or better. You could, but maybe not; Marlowe was a brilliant writer, who was killed and would have developed many more plays had he not died. So yes, we teach Shakespeare to the loss of other contemporaries and it would be nice to learn more about the others, to learn that Shakespeare being the best is a THEORY or OPINION, to teach children to make up their own minds by examining the evidence, etc.

    Looking at it another way, perhaps, the argument isn’t really about Shakespeare at all but about any particular “ancient” or “old, dead” literary writer. I’m guessing this is what the writer means and that Shakespeare is a sort of proxy, but perhaps she means it actually isn’t necessary to teach specifically Shakespeare.

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