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Where the heck are you Romeo? - R.h. Joseph

Long desirous of impaling the cretin who employed the magnificent conclusion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to induce a Pavlovian response in cell phone drones, my reaction to the dumbing down of the glorious language of Shakespeare in high school texts had me searching for an Elizabethan pike upon which to hoist the black hearts of the philistines responsible.

Regular readers know of my contempt for efforts by the mediocre to rid the world of all they cannot fathom, all they find diminishing by virtue of an historically acknowledged, but for them, elusive excellence. I am not surprised, therefore, by another attempt to render the superlative commonplace.

True, the Bard's works contain profound insights into human behavior and the human psyche. In and of themselves, these lessons allow all that attend an appreciation of the common thread that defines us regardless of when in the human continuum we abide.

Our clothes and hair may change over time but love, jealousy, avarice, the malleability and viciousness of the herd, these reflections of our nature must be acknowledged in order to be transcended. Shakespeare's genius is not limited to his mellifluous prose.

These lessons are indeed valuable and if a dumbed down version helps more citizens inculcate such enlightening and humbling truths, we as a nation can only profit.

But what price do we pay for denying our young exposure to unalloyed beauty, in this case as manifest in the writer's consummate use of language?

More than this, what price do we pay when we deny exposure to the extraordinary, and how else might we describe Shakespeare?

His writing, the plays and sonnets, are ultimately the expression of a man and all need to reflect upon the scope of human potential.

Comparing our individual natures with what we might be motivates us to contemplate the nature of creativity, the nature of talent and the nature of vision. How much of our individual limitations are the result of our unwillingness to probe our own unbounded imaginations?

These new texts, which offer both the original language and the "easy listening" version, are said to enable the young to better understand the playwright's intent. My questions is, "What is the teacher's function? What does teacher mean?"

A self-styled defender of the arts and sciences, having written the preceding I was confident the moral high ground was mine. But then an inner voice began gnawing at this self-satisfaction: "What about Chaucer?"

Arrgh! In retrospect my response to this presumed predilection for mediocrity is no less Pavlovian than that reaction induced by the aforementioned cell phone's Beethoven desecration.

Were it not for a translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's (1342-1400) "Canterbury Tales" from Old English into American I could never have appreciated or enjoyed the classic. Yikes!

More important still, consider the transition from Chaucer's virtually impenetrable English to Shakespeare's (1564-1616) limpid prose required a scant 200 years. It is difficult to conceive the impact of such a radical transformation not only on the populace as a whole but on those with a mindset equivalent to my own.

Had I lived in Shakespeare's day would I have insisted upon Old English? Should I have insisted upon Old English? Tough call!

Still, this issue should have little bearing upon the current valorization of mediocrity enforced in a misguided attempt to ameliorate the sometimes disheartening truths revealed in a meritocratic classroom environment.

We celebrate "King Lear" and "Romeo and Juliet" for precisely those luminous facets revealed solely to the gifted. To view these lapidary constructs as nothing more than stories with characters and plots is to deny not only Shakespeare's worth but those singular achievements for which our culture will be remembered. The rest is drivel.

Above all else kids need to understand the hierarchical nature of human accomplishment. They must be exposed to unalloyed excellence, not expurgated pabulum.

A teacher's responsibility is to draw attention to that abstraction referred to as excellence, to articulate the criteria with which we differentiate the sublime from the commonplace.

Similarly, mathematicians employ the term elegance to characterize intellectual constructs consisting of nothing but numbers. Kids need to appreciate the constitution of elegance.

The majority of the young may not be able to reflect such excellence, such elegance, but their teachers have a responsibility to expose them to it and explain precisely why such achievement is revered.

R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at rjoseph@news-daily.com.