Shakespeare and the
Death of Critical Thinking
I had the great pleasure of working in bookstores for many years. It was a great way to interact with people who enjoyed the written word as much as I did. Sure, not every person you would come across would share your same likes, but that just added to the fun. In some ways, the bookstores were a meeting place where people could exchange ideas freely. At least, that was my romanticized view of my job. The reality was that it was mostly people coming in to purchase books and they couldn’t have cared less about any viewpoints other than their own. I did work in chain bookstores, so that was bound to happen. Even those customers had their charm. If you could engage them in conversations, then you would get to learn about so many different viewpoints on so many different subjects. That was always charming (let’s face it, it would not be fun if we all had the same point of view on every subject).
Over the years, you would see trends come and go. I would marvel at some of the things that would become insanely popular (I’m looking at you 50 shades). The stores had their own ebb and flow based on the season. When you were getting closer to school starting, you better have a copy of the local schools’ reading lists and order extra copies because there is nothing quite like the anger of a soccer mom who decided to wait until the last minute to buy little Johnny’s required reading and it is somehow your fault that capitalism won and you sold out of all of the copies you had and your next shipment wouldn’t be until a week after their assignment is due.
One trend I started to notice more and more was one of Shakespearean proportions. It was one that troubled me. What was this mysterious trend? Why did it trouble me so? Lucky for you, I will share. No Fear Shakespeare. You know the version of the bard’s works that presented them in plain (modern) English. It was this that made me realize that critical thinking in schools is being done away with.
For those of us who are old enough (by old enough I mean that No Fear no existed) remember having to muddle through reading Shakespeare’s works. It was ‘hard’ work, trying to understand exactly what the meaning of his passages was. We had to actually use our brains to figure out the story that was being presented. I remember being so disappointed when I realized that the great Romeo and Juliet were just two horny teenagers who died after knowing each other for like 5 minutes (that’s sarcastic exaggeration…but not by much).
Kids today, they don’t want to invest any mental powers in ‘figuring it out.’ They want the answers handed to them. Part of the fun of Shakespeare was the figuring it out part. It taught us new ways to think and how to problem solve. These days though, that is unthinkable. The only things that count are the answers on the standardized tests. The schools are judged based on these results so the teachers spoon feed the answers so that the students will score well and schools receive their funding. You have parents that have little time (and sometimes little interest) in teaching little Becky anything so they take the easy way out and also just spoon feed the answers. The kids, in turn, are used to being lazy and seeing results and will absolutely have a conniption if they have to do anything other than regurgitate an answer without having to achieve the result through thought. Thinking is hard, and thinking leads to thoughts, thoughts can make you sad and we can’t have that.
Mind you, this trend was in place way before my bookstore shenanigans. I just noticed it because of the purchasing trends concerning the bard. I would shudder whenever someone would request a No Fear Shakespeare book. As much as I really want to, I can’t blame the kids since it was we adults who crafted the world they live in. We made it easy on the children. We (as a collective) didn’t want them to experience the hardships we may have had. We didn’t want them to think near as hard and risk failure if they may have got it wrong. This is a great disservice to the young ones. How will they be able to figure out the complexities of life if they can’t even figure out what Shakespeare was trying to say? It’s ok if they get it wrong (even though parents, schools, and the funding puppet masters say otherwise). Getting something wrong and (dare I say failing) teaches kids coping mechanisms. Without these, kids will grow up to be self-centered little beasties with rage issues.
You can see it happening all around us. There is no such thing as discussion anymore. It’s one side shouting their view-points and another side shouting back. People no longer want to sit back and logically work through an issue. The collective view is that the only viewpoint that can be correct is my own and if I am forced to think critically about it, then I will become enraged and immediately stomp my feet and throw a tantrum. Look at how many books are getting banned (once again) because they might be offensive (because it may cause a child to think).
Overall, this is a gross simplification of what’s going on in the world today. I am also not saying that forcing kids to read Shakespeare as it was written will help. What I am saying is that it is time to force kids to starting thinking again. Make them ‘figure it out.’ Let them explore new ideas (trust me, reading Huck Finn will NOT make a child racist). Stop giving little Johnny the answer to the math problems. Show him HOW to get the answer. Show your children HOW to think, not how to REGURGITATE. More importantly, let them fail. Let them get it wrong. Show them why they failed. Show them how to deal with failure and how to bounce back. We didn’t get to the moon because it was easy, we got there because the German scientists we grabbed thought about and worked through all the formulas necessary to get rockets off of the ground. We got there because Margaret Hamilton was instrumental in coding the software for the lander. They were not regurgitating information. They had to come up with new ideas and they failed many times. They knew how to deal with the failure and move on. See? Good things can come from failure! And a good place to start failing is trying to understand Shakespeare!