'Hamlet' and Public Education

'Hamlet' and Public Education

The U.S. public education system today does not resemble Rousseau's Émile. It resembles a Shakespearean melodrama, with stabbings, jealousies, crazy old people and alienated young people locked up together in a Gothic castle. Ah, but which play does that remind you of? It’s not A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Like Hamlet’s father, traditional liberal democratic education is now a ghost. Taxpayer funding for education is in decline. But liberals – including most teachers - cling to the vain hope that the State will reverse course and step back into the game. It won’t. The King is dead. This is irreversible, but everyone is pretending it isn’t. Education is now in the hands of conservative reformers who, like Claudius, appear as usurpers to liberals. The foundations and think tanks are committed to charter schools, accountability, standardized testing, banning books and LGBTQ+, and strict discipline and they are making schools unbearable for students and teachers.

The story of Hamlet, of course, is that Hamlet’s father, the King, is dead and Hamlet refuses to accept it. His uncle, Claudius, has assumed the throne. Worse, Hamlet’s mother is getting cozy with Claudius (there are plenty of people willing to sell out). Hamlet is depressed. His friends are depressed. Ophelia is depressed. Everyone is depressed. Maybe you know how Hamlet ends? Poison and a sword fight where everyone ends up dead, Columbine style.


This is Hamlet and the Gravediggers by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret from 1883.