Behind the desk: Kathleen Schultheis

Schultheis discusses the evolution of English and the silencing of great works


Penelope Kladopoulos / Talon

From her early childhood to her career at Oak Park High School, one constant in Kathleen Schultheis’s life has been her love of literature. Schultheis considers herself an “obsessive reader” and enjoyed complicated and powerful literary works even as an adolescent.

“During my very early childhood I enjoyed reading the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ series and the ‘Velveteen Rabbit.’ Around the age of 12 I discovered Herman Melville and ‘Moby-Dick’. I didn’t understand most of this dense text but I just loved the figure of Captain Ahab,” said Schultheis. “This was a very big moment in my life and I realized that very serious literature, although arduous and hard going, can teach you things that you would never find in any other area of life.”

One of Schultheis’s favorite aspects of Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is how the novel changed throughout recent decades and empowered her generation to strive for change.

“During the 60s and 70s, there was a revolutionary year of kids on campuses rebelling and that provoked a lot of interest in Melville because he had written about authority and rebellion,” Schultheis said. “I think I love the novel because it has evolved over time and can be impactful to each new generation in a unique way. ” 

Driven by her passion for English and literature, Schultheis wished to pursue a PhD after graduating from the University of Southern California. She postponed that dream when her husband was accepted into medical school and began her teaching career at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

“He had gotten into medical school and one of us had to work. So I put off getting my advanced degree, took up high school teaching and loved it,” said Schultheis. “I always wanted to be in English, to teach it, and to teach great books. I was good at it, I liked it and I never stopped liking it.”

Schultheis eventually returned to USC to earn her doctorate and began teaching at OPHS in 2000. Much of her love for literature, both as a student and teacher of it, comes from the fluidity of its nature and the flexibility of its meaning. 

“I love English because it seems to be the one discipline where there is the most freedom,” Schultheis said. “With a book there can be so many different interpretations, different perceptions and even my students see things differently from me.”

Though Schulethis loves that English evolves with time, she admits that present day interpretations of classic works and the way in which newer generations are tackling emerging issues concerns her.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Schultheis said. “I think the world we are in right now with literary engagement is somewhat troubling, what I mean is, silencing. Some great works of the past, for political reasons, have been canceled and interpreted as being oppressive, sexist or demeaning.”

Schultheis believes that although controversial issues are present in older works, the way in which we approach them needs to change.

“Some people want to remove [controversial books] and take them off reading lists,” Schuletheis said. “Many great books have been banned on college campuses. I don’t think that’s how we should approach discourse. We should say yes, there is a problem here, but what can we learn from it? How can we explore this work in a new way without silencing or canceling it as a whole?”

Schultheis worries that extreme measures are being taken because people are confining themselves under narrowing labels and that this “literary silencing” is a result of identity politics.

“I think the modern identity movement is good,” Schultheis said. “Where the problem lies is identity politics. When you associate yourself with only one group or label, you draw really narrow lines and close yourself off from different ideas. That type of close mindedness helps no one.”

In a discipline so dependent on individual perspectives and interpretations, intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness are important qualities to have, qualities Schuletheis appreciates in her students.

“I never want to close myself off from ideas different from my own,” Schultheis said. “I think one of the wonderful things about adolescents is that their ideas aren’t fixed. They’re malleable, still making sense of the world and have so much intellectual curiosity.”

Schultheis nurtures her own intellectual curiosity with fellow literary scholars. During her last few summers she traveled to Oxford to study with English teachers from around the world.

“These were incredible experiences and I like to keep up with authors that I have an interest in, like Percy Shelley,” Schultheis said. “All his archives are housed in Oxford and one of my favorite quotes of his is, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ What he basically means is that It is the artist who never gets acknowledgment who brings about change.”

Her long lasting love for the subject and experiences as both a student and teacher have given Schultheis a well rounded and proficient understanding of literature as a whole. She works hard to instill scholarly values in her students and encourages them to be inquisitive of the world around them, questioning the seemingly obvious and diving deeper whenever possible.

Schultheis hopes that her students will be “learners both in and outside of the classroom” and learn “to be both a critic and participant of their society, question assumptions and to live all they can.”