Everything is for Everyone

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on July 18, 2021

Amidst the debate—seemingly contemporary, but really perennial—about what to do about “the classics” and “the canon”, about how to approach the issue of diversity in the curriculum, it is worth pausing on a remarkable essay by Baldwin, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”. [1]

Why did he ever hate Shakespeare? He gives a handful of reasons: skepticism about racial caricature, as in Othello; a sort of envy over the power with which Shakespeare wields English; and, most mundanely, because of “loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare”. [ibid]

The first echoes today’s most common critiques of the classics and most common arguments for diversity in the curriculum: that there is something racist about a focus on a canon that is authored overwhelmingly by white men—really by men coming from a certain loosely conceived Greco-Roman-Christian-European tradition—and that, unsurprisingly, the perspective of this canon is prejudiced.

Baldwin never exactly takes back this point, nor does he disclaim any of the causes of his resentment. What wins him over is an immense resonance that he comes to feel with Shakespeare, a bond over deeper virtues in his writing. Shakespeare is, Baldwin comes to see, precisely not a writer of caricature. His language is not abstruse, but physical and evocative, having much of the character of jazz:

Shakespeare’s bawdiness became very important to me, since bawdiness was one of the elements of jazz and revealed a tremendous, loving, and realistic respect for the body, and that ineffable force which the body contains, which Americans have mostly lost, which I had experienced only among Negroes, and of which I had then been taught to be ashamed. [3]

And, most importantly and fundamentally, Shakespeare is striving to be fully honest about the human condition. Honesty about race, about the profound moral and psychological toll that our casual dishonesty about race has taken upon us, jointly and separately, is the most consistent through-line in Baldwin’s corpus. The struggle of the writer is to face and articulate precisely what everyone else struggles to. Baldwin’s sympathy with Shakespeare is outright personal on this score: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it—no time can be easy if one is living through it.” [4]

To my mind, the most tragic part of Baldwin’s initial resentment of Shakespeare was not that he had to get over an initial skepticism about being on the receiving end of Shakespeare’s chauvinism. It was, instead, the mundane reason: that Shakespeare, as one learns him in school, is boring. It took the distance of both time and space, of living abroad, years after his schooling, for him to be able to find value in Shakespeare. It was probably inevitable that Baldwin would eventually come around to connecting with the bard. But it is surely it is not an intrinsic or desirable feature of curriculum and pedagogy, however commonplace it is, that when one learns Shakespeare one will become disinterested and alienated.

This, to me, gets at both the real value and the real challenge of diversity in the curriculum.

A core, usually implicit premise to a good upbringing is that any child can claim anyone as a hero. Baldwin can, and should have been able to, given his predilections and values and concerns, induct Shakespeare into his pantheon. Likewise, I can and should have been able to induct Baldwin into mine: he is a preeminent American essayist, among the most philosophical and psychological of the cultural commenters on recent history—for which I was hungry and of which I wanted to partake, even as a child. (The one bit of Baldwin I read in school, “Sonny’s Blues”, was intriguing but distant.) Baldwin was more accessible to me than Shakespeare, but the same principle applies: no educator did the work to make him exciting. That work fell to me, the student, and I didn’t do a great job of it.

Today, it is more likely that a teenager will tap into cross-cultural sources of strength and identity via pop culture than via school. This is not at all a knock on pop culture, but it is most definitely a knock on school. The job of the educator is not just to provide a bare rote introduction to Shakespeare or Baldwin, but to enable and inspire deeper connections to works that might otherwise remain alien. “Otherness” is relative. In the context of the so-called canon, Shakespeare belongs, but to today’s students he is very much an other.

This is quite different from the normal arguments for diversity. Indeed, in their simplistic forms, it is opposed to them. Diversity in the curriculum is often put forward as a reductionist solution to helping students relate to texts: given that, say, a black child won’t easily relate to a white canon, let’s at least add some black authors to the menu.

There is a version of this approach that is good—black (and other) authors should be part of the curriculum, and even partly for this reason. But when held as a fundamental rather than peripheral issue, it is a cynical abdication. It’s giving up on the helping along the Baldwins of the world. It’s giving up on the humanism ideal, of there being common ground across histories and cultures, and of this common ground being of value and import. 

Diversity and inclusion demand more of us, not less. It demands that I, a truly novice historian growing up in the South in the 1990s, be connected to Baldwin, a now-historical, mid-century, Harlem-native, Parisian-adoptive author—who in turn should have been connected to a relatively far more distant 16th century English playwright. It demands that both of us, and everyone, be given these and many other opportunities to understand, to know, and to personally claim figures from across the entire range of human existence.

Of course, this also demands that the so-called canon be expanded. One cannot put in the work of connecting students to the entire range of human existence unless it is adequately represented. But it is a very different thing to represent this full range so that a student can find her closest niche within it, and to represent this full range so that a student can roam across it and claim peak after peak.

Montessori wrote that opportunities for hero-worship should be baked into all school learning, even outside of the humanities:

The children frequently asked to see portraits of these heroes and delighted in relentlessly pursuing the near-miraculous significance of their work once they had a clear idea of the times in which they had lived, the degree of ignorance of their contemporaries with regard to their research and studies, and the dearth of means at their disposal. [5]

And she even emphasized the diversity and the fundamental unity of the heroes:

A near-religious respect grew within them for these men who lived in such distant times and places, who belonged to such a diversity of social classes; in this way, they managed to thoroughly grasp, almost concretely, the universal unity for good achieved by the work of men the world over. [6]

Unfortunately, arguments about the content of curriculum, as with most arguments these days, have been largely myopic and parochial. In fact, the canon is constantly being questioned and shifting. That is one of the perennial features of the canon. By the time of Plato, skepticism about the value of Homer was already an established sport. The Renaissance and Enlightenment first expanded the canon to include antiquity as a means of breaking free of dogma—and then saw that canon itself become a sort of dogma, against which freethinkers then had to rebel. It’s a universal enough phenomenon that I’m sure it recurs in all cultures at coarse enough time scales. It’s part of relating to and processing the past. 

These issues with curriculum selection are and have always been challenging questions for the educator, questions that have to be grappled with in a principled way. What is that principle? As educators, the guiding light should as always be the enhancing the agency of our students. Education ought to provide rocket fuel in the form of the essence of the human past, expertly distilled so that it is accessible to young minds. The spark of self-creation in every student needs such fuel, to forge a unique identity and to fall in love with the world and the human beings within it.

If we get that right, we need not fuss too much about choosing curriculum by the standards of eliminating societal oppression, because our students themselves will find better paths than the ones we find ourselves now navigating. And we need not worry about a student not suffering from overly restrictive inputs, because that is precisely what we are optimizing for solving.

  1. Baldwin, James (1964), “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”. Printed in Kenan, R. ed. (2010). The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, Pantheon: New York.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Montessori, Maria (1949), San Remo Lectures.
  6. Ibid.

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.