'Friends, countrymen... Hear me for my cause'

The parallels between Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and real life are clear - Economics usually outweighs education.

classroom 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
classroom 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One of the advantages of being an English literature and language teacher is that one can always find a work of literature mirroring the situation in which society (and the individual) finds itself. Take, for example, Julius Caesar. Last year, I decided to teach the play to the students in my 12th grade class. There was, as you can imagine, much complaining, because they felt that they had to study a play that was much more difficult than the plays other students were studying. I told them that I had chosen the play, not simply because I felt that educated students should be allowed to savor Shakespeare, but because I believed that the conflict and themes presented in the play were relevant to their lives in Israel. And while I had chosen this play because I felt that after they graduated they would be placed in situations where their values, morals, and personal ethics would be put to the test, I didn't realize at the time that I would find myself this year in the same situation. The conflict in the play, as those of you who have studied it recall, is seen especially through the character of Brutus, who must decide whether the good of the country outweighs personal gain. It is an issue affecting every teacher today who is a member of the SSTO (Secondary Schools Teachers Organization). We teachers have been fighting for the reduction of class size and the return of teaching hours. These aren't issues of personal gain; they are, in fact, the only sane choices and logical educational tools through which we are able to reach our students, teach them, conduct dialogue, note problems that each child may have, and help our students learn and succeed in life, not merely for tests. Returning teaching hours means stronger enrichment and education for our students. How can it be that a government that supposedly cares for its children's education allows students in many middle schools to have few, if any, geography classes, to have little connection to art and music, to have a reduction in science hours, to name only a few areas? How can English hours be cut in high schools when it is clear that for our children to succeed in the future, they will need English to communicate? Teachers who continue to focus on educational conditions are fighting for the good of the country, not for themselves alone. In Julius Caesar, one could argue that the most persuasive speech was that of Marc Antony. He was a master of public relations, a manipulator, a man with a golden tongue who mesmerized the crowd as he told them what they wanted to hear. He presented a vision of the new Rome, a Rome in which every citizen would be given parks, money from Caesar's will (which was non-existent), and promises of reform. But the moment the crowd departed, swayed by his words and the pictures he had painted for the masses, he said, "Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt!" He was the perfect "spin doctor," and the result of his words was the outbreak of a civil war, which didn't seem to bother him ("Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth…") because he had achieved his personal goal - to be a member of the triumvirate of Rome. The infomercials for "Ofek Hadash" being presented in the media today parallel Antony's actions. They present a rosy picture without specific details - a plan which promises more classrooms in the future and more teaching hours provided by teachers without a concrete time frame. These commercials neglect to mention that the so-called raise the teachers are being given doesn't actually amount to a raise - since the teachers are expected to teach more hours to compensate for the raise. And there is no promise of smaller class size. And these same commercials don't even mention the plan of the SSTO, Oz Le T'mura, which was implemented several years ago in a few schools (as a pilot) and succeeded, but was later abandoned. However, these infomercials are slick and are being paid for by the government, which obviously has the money to pay for them - perhaps because they haven't had to pay high school teachers' salaries for a over eight weeks. The parallels between the fictional drama and real life are clear. Economics usually outweighs education. The greater good of our students seems expendable as long as it appears that the country's budget is balanced and if there is money for cars, private health insurance, and more for those who control the money. Individual politics are more important than a social conscience. During the strike, the teachers were faced with their own moral dilemma: do they walk out of the classroom as if abandoning their students for the greater good of education as a whole? Do they demonstrate and stand at junctions, at the airport, at meetings where government and businessmen were meeting? Do they stand outside courtrooms, do they hold meetings, do they consider not going back to school despite the injunction forced upon them? Each teacher had to decide whether his/her own actions and decisions reflected personal or social gains. Was the threat of not returning to the classroom morally corrupt, as implied by the finance minister? Or was it, instead, a decision made in the hopes of setting a true example for our students, about whose future we truly care? At the end of Shakespeare's tragedy, Brutus dies. He dies because, in fact, he was an idealist who believed that true rulers worked to improve the conditions of the individual and society as a whole. He was not a politician; he was an educator and thinker. As his body was being carried away, even his political enemy stated: "This was the noblest Roman of them all. …He only, in a general honest thought and common good to all, made one of them [became a conspirator]…This was a man!" The strike may be over and teachers might have returned to the classrooms. This is not to say that our fight for a better education system has disappeared. On the contrary, the teachers' struggle has caused parents, students, and the government to take a good look at the need for a true reform if we want to help our children become educated, thinking citizens. Let's hope this momentum continues. I, of course, am considering teaching Don Quixote this year! The writer is a high school English teacher for the 10th-12th grades in Kfar Saba, where she has taught for the past 32 years. She teaches Israeli students as well as native English speakers, has co-authored EFL workbooks and gives teachers' workshops in Literature for the Soul.