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  • “No Profit Grows Where is No Pleasure Ta’en”: Shakespeare, Performance, and the Way to Deep Learning
  • Kevin J. Costa (bio)

A few years ago, I served as an outside reader on a dissertation that examined the history of performance-based Shakespearean pedagogy. In that study, I learned of Orson Welles’s work with his former headmaster, Roger Hill of the Todd School. They wished to create a series called Everybody’s Shakespeare, a collection of edited plays for students to learn Shakespeare through performance. Welles and Hill contributed a short essay to The English Journal expressing their disdain for trends in the teaching of Shakespeare:

In attempting to make our study of literature scientific and analytical we have merely made it dull. A Shakespearean play is no cadaver, useful for an autopsy. It is a living, vibrant entity that has the power of grasping us by the hand and leading us up onto a peak in Darien. “But I can’t understand Shakespeare” says the high-school boy. “It takes a gray-bearded professor to know what he is talking about.” You are wrong, Johnny. It’s the gray beard that you can’t understand. He has asked you to read Shakespeare with a pair of glasses smoked to a dull and dingy gray. Take them off. It was written for you, for the groundlings, for the unscholarly Globe patrons who walked in from the cockfight on the street. Only those folks whose blood courses hot through their veins can understand these tingling lines. Shakespeare said everything—brain to belly, every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats. . . .

[A] pox on the sacrosanct approach to literature. “Bow your heads, children,” says the literary high priest in his classroom sanctuary. “We are approaching the great and the holy. Let your voices be stilled and your minds become reverent. You will not enjoy this but it will be very good for you.” Rubbish! If the pupil doesn’t enjoy it, it certainly will be no good to him. And if the pupil is not free to reject, he is not free genuinely to embrace and appreciate.


Welles talks about the teaching of Shakespeare, but his critique applies to what we may call standard educational practice in the 20th and 21st centuries—a pedagogy where knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student and where curriculum is often shaped by the kinds of tests students must take. [End Page 165]

Education in the 20th Century

In the current conversation about educational change, it is customary to recount the Prussian model of education that was ushered into the United States with the gathering momentum of the Industrial Revolution. Joel Rose, in his article “How to Break Free of our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System,” reminds us that

It’s a factory-model classroom. Inspired in part by the approach Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843, it seemed to adequately prepare American youth for the 20th century industrialized economy. . . . Mann’s vision also made sense for the industrial age in which he lived. The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. Factories weren’t designed to support personalization. Neither were schools.

The image here evokes an assembly line in education—students in rows being fed facts who then get tested on how well they remember those facts. Indeed, in 1892, The Committee of Ten, a group made up of college presidents and secondary school heads, gathered at Harvard University to establish the K-12 model of education to which we still adhere today in the United States: a twelve-year sequence, the establishment of subjects of study, and uniformity of program precluding differentiation. In brief, the committee concluded that

every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues...


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pp. 165-182
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