April 12, 2005

Using Shakespeare to discuss Schiavo

While discussing The Tempest, our teacher asked us what we thought about the Schiavo case. I asked, "Do you really want to hear about what we have to say about Schiavo instead of The Tempest?" My teacher is a brilliant, dedicated, and compassionate Harper Fellow. He is the kind of teacher who inspires. Of course he replied "yes."

Needless to say, I went on a rant about the right using the Schiavo case to further the conservative agenda. It felt invigorating and almost naughty. Suddenly, I was discussing the real world in a class centered around the classics.

My classmates transformed from disinterested students to passion-driven individuals. People were speaking with their ingrained biases, their hearts, and with the news, albeit insufficient, we had all received. We were at once masters of this craft and completely partial. Is this not also part of learning? I believe we must be able to relate texts written hundreds of years ago to present day society.

At first I was skeptical about discussing current events. The Tempest will be around long after the Schiavo firestorm has burned out. And indeed, once we discussed Schiavo we were able to tie major themes of the case back to The Tempest. My hypothesis about the importance of classics was reiterated. We study classics because they teach us how to think. Perhaps it is more important to understand how Shakespeare thought than to understand every detail of his work. Though both tasks seem daunting and incomprehensible, the former prepares you for everything and everyone.

It is a fine line between discussing current events and neglecting the direction of the course. My Hum class has been able to connect ancient works with modernity in a way that is tasteful and always thought provoking. In fact, we analyzed an episode of The Simpsons in terms of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. These original approaches have made this class feel much more like a community than my other classes.

Maybe it takes a certain level of comfort and familiarity in order to speak about

topics which "do not directly relate to the material." Because once we shed the protective shield of the past we are all more vulnerable. We expose a bit of our non-Hum self in our Hum class. Maybe the greatest aim of education is to embrace that tension. If learning is all about forming connections between various disciplines, how can we not urge more teachers to discuss pertinent issues in the world? Yet, a discussion about the Schiavo case without The Tempest could easily take place in my dorm --— without the guidance of a teacher. I am still ambivalent about the correct venue for current events. The most I can offer is to foster debate about the necessity of making classics less like old books and more like useful lenses to view modern society. Perhaps only then can we determine for ourselves if they are in fact, "great books."