"What’s the Matter, my Lord?": How the Common Core favors Serial over Shakespeare.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

After I wrote that I’m teaching “Serial” instead of Shakespeare this semester, some people doubted that I understand the superiority of The Bard over Sarah Koenig. Trust me, I understand the superiority. I used to take my classes to Shakespearean plays, and I think Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. Looking around my classroom, I see a student’s painting of Hamlet in the graveyard, and I see two Hamlet-inspired skulls. Years ago, I told my senior AP class that a passing grade was contingent on proven mastery of Hamlet — until the principal called me in and told me I couldn’t really do that.

In terms of literary content and quality, “Serial” cannot be compared to Hamlet without making a farce of literary criticism. Hamlet sounds the depths of the human soul, while “Serial” is full of flat characters, potentially meaningless distractions, a total lack of not even a complete product yet. Serial cannot (and explicitly doesn’t try to) measure up to Shakespeare’s plays.

So if it’s not a matter of literary merit, then why am I choosing to teach “Serial” instead of Shakespeare? To put it simply, today’s Common Core culture insists that I focus on teaching the communication skills necessary to excel in college and the workplace, sometimes at the expense of teaching the content of the classics. These are not mutually exclusive goals, but it is often easier and more efficient to teach the communication skills with texts that are less than classic. For starters, some of these “less than classic” texts are more likely to fall in my students’ zone of proximal development. As one educator put it, “you’re spending less time decoding language that is out of their range, and more time working on the skills within their grasp.” And the contemporary texts are frequently more accessible, engaging, and relevant to their daily lives.

We skipped Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for Rembert Browne’s “The Front Lines of Ferguson” and other, conflicting perspectives of Ferguson. We eschewed an essay by Benjamin Franklin in favor of an analysis of the podcast that led to Bill Simmons’ three-week suspension, and we compared that rant to the more measured, more thoughtful, less slanderous discussion on PTI’s podcast. And so on. Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

First of all, we have standards. They favor method over matter.

Not literary standards. I’m talking about Common Core State Standards. In an explicit “Message from the State Board of Education,” the standards “define the general, cross-disciplinary literacy expectations for students in preparation for college and the workforce.” For example, one of the standards is Reading 7: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats.” For all the reasons I listed in an earlier post, Serial provides a useful text to teach almost all of these reading and writing standards, and a perfect medium to teach the listening skills.

None of the standardized tests even hint at “appreciation of classic literature.”

None of important tests — the SBAC, the CAHSEE, the SAT — have a single question about a specific piece of literature or the facts about a single author or time period. The implicit message from the State Board: in a high school English class, communication skills should be prioritized to the extent that appreciation of classic literature is tertiary, maybe even irrelevant.

The explicit message from local administrators: communication skills should be prioritized over the appreciation of classic literature.  Literally one hour ago, an administrator told me: “I think English teachers got into the profession because they love literature, and so they cling to the story, which isn’t ultimately that important. So they don’t know Hamlet — most adults don’t. I mean on one hand, they can be learning more about the nature of man and all about the humanities, but on the other hand they could be learning about reading and writing so that they can function in the working world. Obviously we should favor the second case.”

In stark contrast, my daughter is going to a private “classical academy” where they publicly criticize the state standards and promise that the students at their school will master the classic literature of the world. My daughter just recited a Shakespearean poem as well as any of my high school juniors do for “Poetry Out Loud.” She’s four. Will she be able to “function in the working world”? I assume so, but this priority seems tertiary at this school, like literary appreciation is tertiary in the public schools — not a bad thing of course, but supplementary, almost irrelevant. I think in both cases, there’s a presumption that one will happen as the result of the other.

Method over matter: the taxpayers seem to agree.

If there has been any resistance to my post on “I’m teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare,” it’s been almost entirely from English teachers, which validates the observations of the administrator quoted above. I’ve heard nothing but support from parents and community members. I think the most vocal supporters of the post are adult professionals who aren’t working directly in the schools.

Method over matter: I might agree.

It’s definitely my job to teach teens how to write, read, listen, and think critically. I should also encourage them to use these skills at the highest level of complexity (and if that’s Shakespeare, then great). I cringe at the idea that “preparing students for the workforce” is my primary job, but after I teach them the communication skills to the best of my ability, the students can choose whatever route they want, right? They can read Shakespeare on their own time. Or the bible. Or John Green. Whatever they want.

Once I get past the skills of writing, reading, listening, and thinking critically, I’m very quickly in an area where I’m choosing the themes and morals for other children of other families. I would love to teach Ecclesiastes as literature, for example, but I think people would freak out. But why is it then okay for me to choose another “dead white guy” to show us how to tame a shrew? Why is it okay for me to lead discussions on what it means to be a hero? Once we comprehend that Hamlet feels it’s sometimes courageous to commit suicide, is it my job to continue this discussion? Most people seem to think no, it’s not my job, and they might be right.

I mentioned that my daughter is attending a “classical academy,” but I’m not sure she’s going to stay there. If I know that the public schools will teach her the state standards to the best of their professional ability, she can read Pride and Prejudice with me and her mother.

If our society had different values, I would think differently.

Sometimes I hear somebody argue that Shakespeare holds valuable “cultural currency” — that the students should know his plays so that they can participate in adult life with educated people. But I work with relatively well-educated people — most of them haven’t read Hamlet and fewer of them remember it well enough to want to talk about it. If I want my boys and girls becoming social men and women, then there are other texts they should be exposed to.

Put it this way, if our society read about, wrote about, listened to arguments about, and thought critically about Shakespearean characters even 1% as much as we do about Adnan and Jay, Ray Rice, or the situation in Ferguson, I would feel differently about what I’m teaching in class. But I play poker every week with a professor of English Literature, and we don’t talk about Ishmael or Jay Gatsby — we talk about Adnan and Jay. And what’s the matter with that?

5 thoughts on “"What’s the Matter, my Lord?": How the Common Core favors Serial over Shakespeare.

  1. The characters in Gatsby don't talk about books or anything substantive either. The only thing anyone reads is Town Tattle, a gossip magazine. Gatsby's library is a farce–a mockery of literary cultivation. But you know that. You also know that their cultural vapidity is one of the reasons for their downfall (Full of hubris–thanks, money–and dismissive of tradition, they couldn't possibly imagine their own frailty, so they devoured each other in an orgy of consumerism). But hey, at least they were social people.

  2. ” I mean on one hand, they can be learning more about the nature of man and all about the humanities, but on the other hand they could be learning about reading and writing so that they can function in the working world. Obviously we should favor the second case.”

    First off, I want to point out that this administrator's claim rests on a false dichotomy. Why can't we teach good reading and writing and explore the nature of man? It's been done before. Like for a long time. Second, you seem to confuse teaching a book with promoting its characters' values (or lack thereof). “Hey, look, Hamlet thought suicide was okay. Can't argue with the bard!” This is precisely the logic people use when they try to ban books. I always thought the other part of my job was to teach critical thinking–how to question a text, quite the opposite of swallowing its ideas whole. Besides, wouldn't I risk imposing values or morals by teaching Ferguson?

  3. I can't argue with your general ideals because I don't have the time to get that deep right now, and also because I generally agree with you. Regarding your specific points…

    1. I agree about the administrator's comments. I was simply reporting on a direct quote from my immediate boss in order to show a typical high school environment in the age of common core.

    2. I don't confuse teaching a book with promoting values, although sometimes the two become intertwined whether I want them to or not. I'm trying to keep my point simple — I'm getting explicit and implicit messages from my admin, common core, and taxpayers that I should be primarily focused on teaching communication skills; teaching the classics is very low on the scale of priorities. These communication skills are easier to teach when the text is within the students' zone of proximal development (which Shakespeare is not), and the skills are easier to practice when there are adults who want to talk about that shared text (and adults would generally rather talk about Serial instead of Shakespeare).

    As a postscript, I should mention that a few people have blamed me for creating a false dilemma/dichotomy when in fact we teach The Great Gatsby, several of Shakespeare's plays, and other classics here at MBHS. I'm simply replacing one book with one podcast, one time. And I'm finding that it's working well.

  4. As a long-time professional teacher in a very academic community, I am with you, Michael. We can bloviate all we want about the value of high literature, but kids who are not on the achievement track to the adult world won't read or fully participate in activities about that literature. Since I have given up on a strict literary approach to my Junior English class and have dug into TED Talks, research on the psychology of teens, and, now, Serial, my students are far more engaged. The things they write are meaningful to them, and they are not just going through the motions.

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