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Something wicked this way comes

August 18, 2023

To the many epithets traditionally attached to my name, we may add “soothsayer.” As I predicted, a Florida school district has prohibited teachers from requiring students to read a complete Shakespeare play — any Shakespeare play.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

In a Bastille Day column this year, I prophesied that Shakespeare would soon be banned in Florida public schools, due to the omnipresence of cross-dressing in his plays — all 34 of them. Why else do you suppose we call him “the Groomer of Avon”?

Three weeks later, my prophecy came true. Now it’s policy in Hillsborough County, the seventh-largest school district in the United States, which includes St. Petersburg and Tampa. No complete Shakespeare plays may be taught in that benighted shire anymore — only shreds and patches. 

Hillsborough County School District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said the Shakespeare ban was made “in consideration of the law,” to wit: Gov. XiRon JinSantis’s (R-CCP) “Parental Rights in Education Act.”

“Romeo and Juliet” — one of Shakey’s hits — appears to be what set off Gov. XiRon’s Karen meter. Fourteen-year-old kids “doing it,” not on stage, but by implication? (Romeo and Juliet: Act. III sc. 5) 

Not in Florida, amigos.

“School district officials said teaching now covered a wider array of books and writing styles — meaning more writers would be studied, and shorter sections of their work assigned rather than complete books,” according to the news website RawStory. “The district said that, because students need to read more writers, they are no longer required to read the complete books.”

Wow. Why read a “complete book” when a blurb would be just as good? 

As an English teacher, I had some questions. I sought “clarification.” 

Spokeswoman Arja told me in an email: “To be clear, we are teaching Shakespeare in a variety of ways in high schools, everything from short excerpts to full novel readings, based on the standards for the course a student takes.”

Well, that’s great, I guess. Can’t wait to get my hands on one of them Shakespeare novels.

In a brief flurry of emails, Arja added: “[M]any of our high school students may read one full novel in addition to excerpts from other works.” 

Double wow. So the smart kids “may read” a complete novel? What does that mean? They’re allowed to?

What cowardice. What idiocy.

Superintendent Ayres declined to speak with me, despite three email requests and two phone calls to his office. Arja said it succinctly: “Mr. Ayres is not available to speak to you.”

I spoke with three school-district employees for this story. All tried to be helpful and treated me with respect, as I treated them. Yet none would divulge the secret code (phone number) by which I could chat directly with Superintendent Ayres, who did not reply to my emails sent to him.

Here are the questions I tried to ask the superintendent:

“Has the local reporting been accurate about your school district’s new policy to prohibit students from reading complete Shakespeare plays? Do you approve of this policy?”

To this, Arja responded that students may read one “full novel” of his.  

I tried to ask: “Does your district follow the sections of Florida’s Stop Woke Act that prohibit schools from teaching about Black history in the United States because it might make white students uncomfortable? Do you approve of that policy?”

To this. Arja responded: “Our district follows state’s standards for our curriculum.”

Well, great. But Florida’s Stop Woke Act prohibits public schoolteachers from teaching a subject if it could make “[an] individual feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”

Knowing this ahead of time (I cheated: I did my homework), I also tried to ask:

“Does your district prohibit history teachers from teaching about Nazi Germany because it might make some students of German heritage uncomfortable?”

That was when I was told: “Mr. Ayres is not available to speak to you.”

I think it’s a fair question. After all, German-Americans are the largest “self-reported ancestry group” in the United States, according to the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy: 49 million people — 7 million more than the latest census figures on Black Americans. 

So if we have to protect white children from having to read about Black history, shouldn’t we protect them from having to read about Nazi history too?

I mean, that might make them feel bad. Poor little Klaus and Brunhilde.

To conclude this dreary slog through the obvious, a slogan appears at the bottom of each email from the Hillsborough County School District: “Preparing students for life.”

Pretty good slogan, I guess, except: a) Hillsborough County students are already alive; and b) they are dealing, will they nil they, with questions similar to those Shakespeare faced; and c) how does restricting study of the man universally regarded as the world’s greatest playwright prepare students for anything?

I taught English for nine years in public high schools, six of them on an Indian reservation, and I always required my students to read a Shakespeare play, usually “MacBeth.” They dug the hell out of it. We’d act out the best scenes. But they all had to read the damn play.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Hillsborough County School Board should direct its spending elsewhere than Bowdlerized, castrated English classes, with blacked-out, redacted speeches all over “Hamlet.”

Here’s an alternative for Hillsborough County school. What about public health, for starters?
Florida, whose residents, collectively, are the fourth-wealthiest in the country, ranks fifth among U.S. state in rates of HIV infections (612.5 per 100,000), and Florida has the 16th-worst public health system among our 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to The Commonwealth Fund.

What’s Next for Florida?

I shall send this column to Superintendent Ayres as a Freedom of Information Act request. I will also ask him to “please distribute this column to your staff and students, to prepare them for life.”

(Courthouse News columnist Robert Kahn’s nonfiction book, “Shakespeare as I Knew Him,” can be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.)

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