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Less Shakespeare In Higher Education?

April 25, 2007

Below are some excerpts from a USA Today article lamenting the loss of Shakespeare in higher education (thanks to HNN for this tip):

– “They’re calling it ‘the unkindest cut of all.’ As Shakespeare fans prepare to celebrate the Bard’s 443rd birthday Monday, researchers for a non-profit group say fewer colleges appear to require students to study the influential author.”
– “Just 15 of 70 institutions studied require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare, says a report [a press release preview] by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group that promotes academic quality. At least six of those schools dropped or weakened requirements since 1996, when the group did a similar study.”
– “The report examines requirements of English majors at U.S. News & World Report’s top 25-ranked national universities and liberal arts colleges, schools in the Big 10 college athletic conference, and a selection of California and New York colleges, along with schools in Washington, D.C., where the Bard is being honored with public events.”
– “The study credited an institution with having a Shakespeare requirement if a majority of English majors have to take either a course on Shakespeare or two out of three single-author courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton” (italics mine).
– “Among findings:
* The Bard is required by only one Ivy League school, Harvard.
* Among top liberal arts colleges, only Middlebury, Smith and Wellesley have such a requirement.
* Three Big 10 schools — public flagships in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin — require Shakespeare.
* In the nation’s capital, only Catholic University and the University of the District of Columbia require Shakespeare.
– “Earning a bachelor’s degree in English without the study of Shakespeare ‘is tantamount to fraud,’ says Anne Neal, president of the group.”

Here’s more from ACTA’s actual press release:

– ” ‘The world loves Shakespeare,’ ACTA president Anne D. Neal said. ‘But American universities don’t. That’s what our study shows.’ “
– “The study, The Vanishing Shakespeare, looks at English departments at 70 universities—public and private, large and small, in all geographic regions. It finds that only 15 of them require their English majors to take a course on Shakespeare.”
– ” ‘A degree in English without Shakespeare is like an M.D. without a course in anatomy,’ the report declares. ‘It is tantamount to fraud.’ It continues: ‘A high school that hires someone with a B.A. in English should rightly assume that this individual can teach Shakespeare and other great authors. However, in a world where Shakespeare is no longer required, it’s easy to imagine a day when schoolteachers will not have read Shakespeare, and will not teach him.’ “
– “As Shakespeare requirements decline, the report finds that English majors are being offered an astonishing array of courses on popular culture, children’s literature, sociology, and politics—everything from animals and celebrities to Baywatch and bodies. These include:
* ‘Of Nags, Bitches and Shrews: Women and Animals in Western Literature’ at Dartmouth College, which explores topics such as whether advances in women’s rights have been met with ‘corresponding advances in the treatment of animals, and why women feel particularly called upon to work for those advances’;
* The University of Pennsylvania’s ‘Cult of Celebrity: Icons in Performance, Garbo to Madonna’ which examines ‘pop idols and fame’;
* ‘Cool Theory’ at Duke University, which is devoted to ‘begin[ning] to frame a theoretical discourse that can create a critical space to examine’ a single word of American slang; and
* Oberlin College’s ‘Folklore and the Body,’ which begins with the premise that ‘the body may seem natural, but bodylore treats it as a cultural artifact inflected by ethnicity, class, gender, so on.’ “
– ” ‘In most of today’s English departments, Shakespeare is no longer required reading,’ Neal noted. ‘Instead, he is an elective—no more important than courses on Madonna and ‘body studies.’ What are these colleges thinking?’ “


The actual press release, as opposed to the USA Today article, sounds a lot like the Young America’s Foundation’s list of “bizarre” college courses mentioned here in January. Like YAF, ACTA has deservedly earned a reputation as a conservative voice in higher education curricula matters.

But I believe the conservative watchdogs of higher education “doth protest too much” – with apologies to The Bard himself (via Queen Gertrude’s comment to Hamlet).

While it may be true that courses dedicated to Shakespeare alone have decreased, I seriously doubt that Shakespeare is being taught less in U.S. colleges and universities.

What has happened over the last twenty years, to the obvious dismay of some, is that higher education course catalogs have simply become more complicated. The move in higher education, a movement that began in the 1960s, is toward interdisciplinary studies. Many old subject matters, and even entire departments, have adjusted accordingly.

Explicit courses given under the name of Shakespeare are clearly decreasing. There can be no argument there. But Shakespeare’s works and studies of his corpus will never disappear. There’s no need to fear the worst. Taking Shakespeare out of literary studies would be analogous to removing a vital organ from English language and literature studies.

While I’m not a pure product of higher education’s literature apparatus, I’ll hazard a guess that The Bard has been incorporated, or given more attention, in courses not advertised with his name. There’s another trend in higher education toward “sexy” course titles, and even Shakespeare’s not immune to that. But his place in the pantheon is guaranteed by the references and allusions to his work diffused all through other works of English.

So, for all you looking forward to celebrating The Bard’s 443rd birthday, read on in Hamlet or some other worthy play – and without worry about Shakespeare’s fate in higher education. His works will outlast this little tempest in a teapot that is our current generation of liberal and conservative educators. – TL

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