The recent statements of author Padma Venkatraman regarding using classic texts such as Shakespeare in the modern classroom border on not only “woke” overreach, but are ridiculous on their face. Her statement smacks of not only a shocking lack of historical context, but a version of “wokeism” that delves into the realm of ridiculous overthink. Her own biases shone through in her most recent statement and is just as bad, if not worse, than what she opposes. Here is what she said:
“Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.”
Her degree in oceanography not withstanding, Ms. Venkatraman shows a stunning lack of historical context in her statement. The idea that the European 16th century was little more than a backwater for hate and dominated by “hate-ridden sentiments” displays her stunning lack of historical knowledge. Her rediculous statement is akin to judging our own society solely on the basis of the popular films we produce. Should an alien being descent to Earth and judge us by our work in that arena, I’m sure they’d gird themselves for war and extreme violence as soon as they touched down.
Curious that Hollywood, that bastion of leftist thought who regularly rail against violence and guns and more violence would continually produce films that not only glorify that violence but actually foster it, at least if we are to trod the same path as Ms. Venkatraman. Do we not risk subliminal messages there as well? If film is art as is literature, then they must be one in the same, as is our music as well, full of innuendo, sexual exploitation and images of violence in the extreme. We don’t take that as a problem at all, actually defending it, but Shakespeare? No, he must be led to the woke pyre and burned at its proverbial stake.
Certainly the 16th century had its miseries: the Lutheran Reformation, the Age of Religious Wars and the dawning of the North Atlantic slave trade among them. The late historian Richard Marius actually blamed Luther as an instigator of mass death because of his movement. There was violence, murder and any other human pestilence one can dream up in that period. To deny deny this is to ignore historical facts. Tolerance was not seen as a virtue, but was dawning in that century. The Peace of Augsburg which gave German Lutherans the right to practice their religion was one such proof. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her attempts to bring religious tolerance to England another. Tolerance and its growth throughout the course of the 16th century was becoming more common, illustrating the growth of the European mind.
Ms. Venkatraman would remove those like Shakespeares from the public arena for not holding true to her woke beliefs. She indicts the modern student by thinking they are not intelligent enough to understand the historical context that should accompany the reading of anyone or any period in the past. Maybe given her background before becoming an author didn’t allow her to develop that insight, but any educator worth their salt would never present an author or work without providing the historical background in which the work took place. The very idea as fostered by Ms. Venkatraman seems farcical at best. Literature without context is akin to words without meaning, something anyone in the field of education understands.
Shakespeare’s themes range from love to betrayal, from hatred to revenge, and from devotion to enmity, all themes still present in modern day literature, film and music. I wonder, would Ms. Venkatraman exclude any modern work for espousing those themes today as well? How about blacklisting authors that put forth such works? Now, we approach the era of banned books, filtered reading, and that most dreaded word of the past: censorship. While were at it, let’s create an Index of Prohibited Books that was also created in the 16th century. Why not? We’ve come this far.
Maya Angelou herself stated on more than one occasion that it was Shakespeare who transcended time and entered her soul as well. In a speech given at Randolph College in 2013, Angelou suggested that Shakespeare “must be a black girl”. This was not spoken in “woke” ideology, but rather the thought that all art and literature is given for all of us to internalize, think on, and enjoy. Just as Angelou’s poetry sings to anyone regardless of race or any of those superficial artifices we identify with, so it is with Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin, and Lady Murasaki, the great novelist of Japanese descent whose timeless novel The Tale of Genji still lights the way to the Japanese past.
In the era we live today, there is a disturbing trend of tolerating censorship, as though it’s simply OK to erase any work, statement, or person that doesn’t reflect the accepted standards of the woke community. What’s more surprising is this notion of suppression is supported more and more by our universities. Once bastions of free speech, they have become little more than echo chambers of denial and censorship, preferring to leave the First Amendment shivering in the outdoor cold while the woke among us enjoy a warm fire complete with a hot toddy. They tell us that democracy dies in darkness. I would suggest rhetoric like that espoused by Ms. Venkatraman is further evidence that free speech is murdered in broad daylight, with few rushing to its defense.
Students are not stupid. In fact, they’re quite intuitive. They can identify quite quickly those that are phonies, liars, and disinterested in their development. What they possess in spades is automatic trust in those that are teaching them. That is their achilles heel, with that trust being ingrained in them since their earliest days in education. It is rare that a student questions the teacher, and most of the time only when that teacher oversteps their bounds in such an egregious way it demands student attention.
Knowing this, it is incumbent upon any educator to teach their students honestly, truthfully, and without bias, allowing them to develop their own sense of what they believe rather than have it foisted upon them through censorship, biased teaching, and an agenda driven approach to education, the latter approach akin to programming, the most nefarious approach to education there is.