Much Ado About Shakespeare: Drama Over Staples Course ‘Cancellation’

May 12, 2022 | Community, Education | 5 comments

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

By Gretchen Webster

Calling out “lies” by quoting the Bard, Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice moved to quell rumors Wednesday that Staples High School has canceled a class in William Shakespeare’s literature for ideological reasons. 

The cancel-culture rumor, which Scarice called “categorically false,” has circulated through the community over the last several days, according to his statement, without specifying its origins.

WP06880 sees TEAM Westport influence

However, a post on the WP06880 website — an anonymous group critical of school and town officials on grounds of “political activism and moralizing intrusions in the classroom” — contends that “an elective course on Shakespeare at Staples High School has been cancelled. Parents also note Shakespeare appears to be getting reduced representation across English classes.”

The website lays blame for the course cancellation on TEAM Westport, an advisory committee to the first selectwoman on topics of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“You told a lie, an odious damned lie,” Scarice said to those circulating the course-cancellation rumor, quoting a verse from Shakespeare’s play, “Othello.”

“This past weekend, messages were sent in the community alleging that our schools canceled the offering of a Shakespeare course at Staples High School, some going so far as to claim this action was based on ideology,” the superintendent wrote in a community update on several topics.

“To be clear, these allegations are categorically false. In fact, the Shakespeare elective was taught today at Staples High School,” he said.

In response to Scarice’s statement, the anonymous group posted a statement Wednesday to “clarify” its earlier post, saying, “We never made any ‘allegations’ but simply asked for information as to what role, if any, ideology may have played in these decisions.”

Too few signups justify offering Shakespeare course next fall

However, the course on Shakespeare, an elective at Staples, will not be offered in the fall because of a lack of enrollment, Scarice noted in the statement. “Not enough students requested the course for next year and it will not run.  This happens to all elective courses. Given the pattern over the years, I suspect the Shakespeare elective will run again in the future,” he said. 

WP06880, in a post last Saturday, said the Shakespeare classes were cancelled because of the anti-racist stance championed by TEAM Westport and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a nationally known anti-racism activist, who spoke in Westport in 2018.

“As we have noted previously, Kendi’s organization has for years been championed by TEAM Westport and has provided extensive training to our teachers and various town employees. Now another literary giant whom Kendi finds objectionable seems to be on the chopping block,” the blog said.

The post also contends the same anti-racist policies led Westport schools to downplay use of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which it says previously was “a core element of Westport’s 8th grade curriculum but no longer is.”

Bailey denounces “disinformation, innuendo”

Harold Bailey Jr., the chairman of TEAM Westport, who previously has expressed concerns about the purpose and goals of Westport Parents 06880, reacted to the group’s Shakespeare cancellation rumors late Wednesday.

“The frenzy with which this ‘anonymous’ site continues to serve up disinformation and innuendo in the cause of fear and loathing has become both appalling and pathetic,” he said in an email.

“Neither TEAM Westport nor Ibram Kendi during his time in Westport advocated for the curricular changes in Westport schools detailed and implied in the letter,” Bailey said.

Kendi was the keynote speaker at the town’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration in 2018 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Anti-racism training also was provided to various organizations in Westport by Kendi, or reflecting his ideas, the following year, including at Temple Israel, the Unitarian Church and the Westport Library.

Kendi is the author of five books for adults and three books for children on anti-racism. He has won the National Book Award, was honored as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University in 2020, and is the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research

The anonymous parents blog also attacked TEAM Westport in January for the topic of the group’s annual essay contest, calling the essay prompt “unsurprising given this organization’s ongoing efforts to impose its neoracist ideology.” The essay prompt was:“Why It Can Be So Difficult To Talk About Race.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the Westport Library. 

Gretchen Webster is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westport Journal. Learn more about us here.

5 Comments

  1. Dr Robert Liftig

    Retired teacher and English professor 52 years. “Lack of enrollment” is always fallback BS in the politics of Education. Shakespeare should be REQUIRED! If you can’t find an exciting teacher FIND one. For the top school in the State with a famous Drama program, this is EMBARRASSING!

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  2. Kevin bUrns

    “Neither TEAM Westport nor Ibram Kendi during his time in Westport advocated for the curricular changes in Westport schools detailed and implied in the letter,” Bailey said

    Okay so TEAM denies Kendi specifically recommended these “curricular changes” while he was in town. But who in the world are TEAM and/or Kendi to even think they are in a position to opine on any curricular changes? Where they elected? Are they experts? The fact remains they have a clear ideological agenda and somehow have achieved influence within the schools.

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  3. Kathy french

    This was biased distorted reporting on multiple levels. The website only clarified the Superintendent’s misrepresentation, not its own words which required no clarification. The superintendent tried to spin the question of potential ideological influence as an allegation to discredit parents and WJ has left readers with the completely wrong impression that the website made a false assertion. Anyone can read the article on the website and confirm this… In the last paragraph, WJ leaves the impression that the essay prompt was simply about the difficulty of talking about race when it was much more involved and invoked concepts of systemic racism and color blindness in a very slanted way. But due to the weak reporting here readers are left with the impression that the website objects to something totally innocuous… Do a better job WJ. Present both sides of a controversy fairly and let readers decide.

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  4. Werner Liepolt

    That the Shakespeare elective is not being offered is very worrisome. Having taught in Westport schools for most of my adult life I cannot imagine middle or high school literature studies that do not include Shakespeare’s works. They are a touchstone for Western values and allow the study of the highest use of language in the service of humanitarian values… ever.

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  5. J Gillman

    As a parent in the Westport school system, I would like to make sure that others know that Shakespeare is still taught in language arts/english classes in the school system. My son read Romeo & Juliet this year. How can we avoid the escalation of attacks based on incomplete or false information? It is setting a very bad example for our children. And, they are watching. As to electives, how do we channel the passion of the critics into promoting the electives to parents and students earlier in the school year, so that the interest in the classes increases? It is not Tom Scarice’s job to force students to sign up for a class? It is not TEAM Westport’s fault that students were not interested in studying Shakespeare. We need to stop blaming and pointing fingers. There are more constructive ways to influence families in our town. Try to inspire them.

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