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Robert David Jaffee

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Brush Up on Your Shakespeare, David Brooks

Posted: 07/06/2012 8:36 pm

From the opening line of David Brooks' most recent column, "Honor Code," the New York Times op-ed columnist is in over his head. Brooks refers to Henry V as "one of Shakespeare's most appealing characters," but any sophisticated reader knows that Prince Hal is not in the least appealing. Yes, a shallow reader might think that Prince Hal is the "rambunctious" youth hailed by Brooks, but that is a cliché.

One can hail Henry V's eloquence in inspiring his troops, but that eloquence and valor are mitigated by Prince Hal's calculating, despicably political nature and his disloyalty to Falstaff, whom he abandons with the coldness of a psychopath, "I know thee not, old man."

While Falstaff is sometimes caricatured onstage, he, unlike Hal, is sublime. One of Shakespeare's greatest creations, Falstaff has an exuberance to him; he delights in life and lust, and in his youth he had been a great warrior, at least according to legend.

Prince Hal, on the other hand, is never convincing as a fighter in Henry IV, Part I. When he defeats Hotspur, a hothead but one with uncommon courage and integrity, Hal's victory does not ring true. That is because, unlike Hamlet, Prince Hal never convinces us that he has been practicing his fencing offstage; Prince Hal does not have the character, depth or discipline for such labors.

Moreover, Prince Hal is not of the stuff of Hamlet, who, like Falstaff, is sublime. One cannot reduce Hamlet to being "reflective," as Brooks does. Brooks should remember that Hamlet also stabs Polonius through the arras, an impulsive act, if there ever was one.

Far from being simply "reflective," Hamlet is layered with contradictions. He is both coward and hero, introspective and impulsive, petulant and mature.

If Brooks intends to improve our education system, for boys as well as girls, he can start by reading beyond the surface or Cliffs Notes version of the Bard's texts and learning to distinguish sublime characters from pedestrian ones.

Boys and girls in our country need the deep reading experiences that some of us enjoyed when we were young and still do to this day.

Just as one cannot reduce Hamlet to being "reflective," one cannot reduce a child or a teacher to a test score.

Teachers should not be evaluated solely or even principally on the standardized test scores of their students. Much more weight should be given to qualitative measures such as comments from supervisors, students and parents, feedback that indicates whether or not a teacher inspires her pupils, the way that Hamlet inspires me.

It astonishes me that we are allowing our children and teens from the ages of 8 to 18 to spend so much time on electronics, more than 7 ½ hours on average every day, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study.

What happened to learning about irony and metaphor, subtext and satire?

David Brooks would have us expose our kids to different cultures and philosophies, to teach them about the military and competition as well as the environment and cooperation, but he misses the point if kids don't learn how to read and think critically.

Given that Brooks himself cannot seem to identify stereotype, cant and cliché, how can he contemplate advising kids and teachers?

In his great books classes, Brooks evidently learned more about doctrine than how to appreciate the cognitive and aesthetic pleasures that come from reading imaginative literature like that of the Bard.

If Brooks really wants to help children, he should start by chiding the politicians (latter-day Prince Hals), who force school districts to buy new textbooks every two or four years.

And he should argue, as I have, in favor of the printed word, not electronics.

Finally, we should all teach our children to value the originality of Falstaff and Hamlet, not the forced actions of a political hack like Hal.

 
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