“Dead black men” has become oft repeated . Baltimore sadly offers the latest focal point for this phrase. “So attention must be paid,” says Willie Loman’s wife of her suffering husband in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But there’s a parallel to which attention also is due: “Dead white men.” That’s the rationale for rejecting much of Western literature, including Miller and, even more important, William Shakespeare.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 23 (Shakespeare’s 451st birthday), “A new study finds that English departments at just four of 52 top-ranked universities require English majors to take a course on the 16th century playwright and poet who is considered the English-speaking world’s greatest man of letters.” The subject was discussed—and debated—on yesterday’s syndicated radio program Forum hosted by Michael Krasny.
Call me biased in favor of Shakespeare. I received my B.A. in English from Alfred (New York) University in 1966. Seven years later, I earned my M.A. in English at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Both schools mandated courses in Shakespeare, as well as in Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343–1400). Dead (English) white men? Yes. Important dead white men? Yes again. Their gifts to literature and thought helped create the foundations of what we write and read—and think—today.
English departments say they love Shakespeare, and their English majors can pick up a play here, a sonnet there. But a whole semester let alone two? There’s so much more to read by outstanding authors from many diverse cultures. True, literature is broader than Shakespeare and the English-speaking world. At both schools, I studied a range of literature, including then-contemporary authors. Over the decades, the quantity of new contemporary fiction (including mine) has grown enormously. The classroom can’t cover it all. It never could. But Shakespeare and contemporary/ethnic literature aren’t mutually exclusive.
This controversy reflects a conundrum in American culture. George Santayana famously said, “Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet many Americans view the past—which they often condemn (it was hardly perfect)—as superfluous. They also see it as distinct from their roots. I get that. My mother’s family arrived here starting around 1885; my father landed here in February 1906. Many of the laws and values that guided their lives—and mine—had already been established. To understand my place in America, I must know our societal past.
Then there are people who believe that education should either be comprised of learning to code or studying revolutionary philosophy. Basic math, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division? We can use our cell phones. History? European thought from antiquity through the present equates with racism. Besides, the world didn’t really exist before we reached age 15. Religion? Marx called it the opiate of the masses. But wait. He’s a dead white man. What the hell! Let’s consign the Bible, the Vedas, the Quran—all scriptures pre-dating Scientology—to the flames.
As to literature, why not Balkanize it? Let every ethnic group reject our common culture and study only its own writers. But let’s not be surprised if we find ourselves united only in spouting politically correct platitudes ultimately forcing us to consider Macbeth’s lament regarding “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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