Sleep might be more important.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Do We Need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

While I was on vacation, the Washington Post published a piece by an English teacher making the case against teaching Shakespeare. Naturally, then, it had to publish the case for teaching Shakespeare. And then the New Republic made the progressive case for teaching Shakespeare. Presumably we will soon have the Conservative Case Against Teaching Shakespeare, the Libertarian Case for Teaching Whatever the Heck You Want, the Antinomian Case Against Having an Opinion About Teaching Shakespeare and so forth.

What I'd like to hear more of -- and have failed to see so far in any of these essays -- is a coherent theory of why we bother to teach any writers at all. It seems to me that we need to know that before we can decide whether Shakespeare is one of the writers we ought to teach, or whether we ought to give up on the project entirely and just let the students spend their time watching YouTube videos, or reading Shakespeare, as they please.

This is a rather personal subject for me; as longtime readers know, I was an English major. For me as an English major, the purpose of these classes was quite clear: I enjoyed them, and I excelled in them, unlike, say, tensor calculus. However, I'm also aware that this can hardly be a universal reason for teaching English classes. Most people find Shakespeare or John Donne ponderous and dull, joyfully casting them aside as soon as they have earned enough credits to get their diploma. 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. For example, both of the writers seem to think that reading literature is primarily about "understanding the human condition" (though the Shakespeare defender also mentions the snob value of being able to say you have read Shakespeare).

But anyone who knows teenagers, or can recall having been one, knows that this is bosh. I read "King Lear" in high school and thrilled to its language and imagery, but it did not teach me what it is like to be an old man desperate for the love of his children, because 17-year-olds can't really imagine their own mortality, much less the near-certainty that they will one day be old while still feeling that they are not quite done being 17.

Nor is this some problem unique to Shakespeare. I read "The Learning Tree" in seventh or eighth grade, and it was certainly much more accessible than "Richard III" but did not noticeably increase the grasp that I or my white and privileged classmates had on the tragic history of race and poverty in America. Children are natural solipsists, and it is time, not literature, that shocks them out of it.  If English teachers believe that they are making large improvements in their students' ability to grasp the human condition, it is because they have fallen prey to a dread fallacy that journalists call "reading your own press releases."

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has what I think is a more defensible argument, which is that the past really is different and alien, and it's important to understand that. Yet I'm not sure that this makes a convincing argument that the way to learn this is through literature. Yes, if you can fluently read a Shakespeare play, or Chaucer, or Dickens, then you will be able to see the world a little bit more through the eyes of their centuries than you otherwise could.

On the other hand, let's be realistic: Most schoolchildren are not going to read Dickens fluently and with enjoyment, the way quite ordinary people did in the 19th century. Much less will they do so with anything written in still more archaic language and style. Reading that way takes quite a bit of work that most people just won't do. They will struggle tediously through it, their eyes glazing over, or, if they can get away with it, they will find a plot summary on the Internet and regurgitate it.

I think you can make a coherent argument for teaching English (and Shakespeare), and it goes something like this: You cannot fully read modern literature without reading at least a good sampling of the authors those authors read. Reading Victorians without having read Shakespeare or the Bible means that you miss a lot of casual allusions that are often quite important. Reading early-20th-century writers without knowing the writers they were reacting to likewise robs you of some understanding.

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.

What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them: because it is worthwhile to force them to read things that are hard, so that they can learn to do things that are hard; because it will make them a more educated and refined sort of person (which is to say, because it has snob value); or because it gives everyone a common cultural language that they can speak together. The first may be so, though I rather suspect that for many people, the chief effect is to inculcate a hatred of reading. The second is vaguely repulsive and also fairly silly -- what is the snob value of having read Shakespeare when every other 15-year-old in the country can make the same claim? And while the third may once have been so, in an era when people crowded the docks to ask the crewmen of English ships whether Little Nell was still alive, I think it's hard to make that argument today. Culture has fragmented, the upper middlebrow is dead, and what common culture we do share is more likely to be found in hip-hop songs and "Walking Dead" episodes than the monologues of Hamlet.

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.

  1. An English professor once told me that it was impossible to read Thomas Wolfe after the age of 25, or Proust before the age of 40, which turned out to not be quite true in my case, but it wasn't all that far off the mark, either.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net