Academics – An Editorial (Fall 2011)

By Steven Martin (English, Sturgis West)

When a sophomore approached me after English class last week with a question, I was not expecting the straightforward inquiry that was to come my way. The young man asked, “Why do we have to read Shakespeare?” Like the diplomatic educator that I am, I responded to the question with another question, “What do you mean?” To which the unperturbed student said, “I mean, Shakespeare sucks, and it makes no sense except when you tell us what it means.”It was here that I decided that I needed to abandon trite old reliable like, “It’s for your own good,” or “You’ll appreciate it when you get to college,” or the ever-alienating, “We all have to do things we don’t like to do.” No. Instead I opted for sincere reflection and told the young man that I would think about his question, consider it carefully, and hopefully be able to find an answer satisfactory for both him and myself.It is very easy to see why someone of today’s young generation would see Shakespeare as useless, not to mention virtually every other type of Literature. I will refrain from over-simplifying the debate with the argument that it is impossible for those used to instant stimulation and brief messages to be expected to digest and nurture the subtle and deep dynamics of Elizabethan English. But there is something to be said for the willingness to do so. Good art in any field requires the audience to make an effort to discover its challenges and mysteries. It is from such efforts that rewards are accomplished—rewards with names like clarity, wisdom, beauty, and love. Through accepting these challenges willingly, we develop the integral skills needed to make the most significant relationships in our lives. If there is no need to accept those challenges and make the required efforts to appreciate literature, then who is to say that we need to make the effort to overcome the challenges attributed to making meaningful connections to friends, lovers, partners, and children that define our civilization?Easy answers and instant communication may bring convenience and efficiency to our lives, but these are hardly the goals inherent in a liberal and well-rounded education. They are the goals of a microwave dinner and an accountant’s spreadsheet. However, the more I look at educational institutions, I see an embracing of the tools that make teaching efficient and convenient. By making scholarly pursuit easily digestible and encapsulated into lesson plans designed for the purpose of fun to engage students, then the teacher is left to ask the same question: “Why do we have to read Shakespeare?”So, to my curious young student who asked the question, my answer would be, one does not have to subscribe to the culture of fun to have a satisfying life. On the contrary, in order to decipher the mysteries of the human condition and thus identify those traits and principles that guide us and define our beloved bonds, I would propose that we need to challenge ourselves and command our wills to engage with the words that may prove more worthwhile to our lives and our society than anything that may seem more pressing at this time. Or, come to think of it, maybe I’ll just tell him, “We all have to do things we don’t like to do.”

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