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    No, Colleges Still Require Shakespeare

    You may have seen news stories, timed for Shakespeare's more-or-less birthday, claiming that top American colleges have stopped requiring Shakespeare. This is not news (nothing about college requirements has changed lately), and not really true. The study uses a very specific and misleading definition which allows it not to count most of the ways that Shakespeare is actually taught in college English departments. The study refuses to accept anything but a required stand-alone Shakespeare-only course as a "Shakespeare requirement." If Shakespeare is only part of required courses, that doesn't count. And if a department has a requirement that drives most of its students into Shakespeare courses, that doesn't count either. This is misleading.

    Worse, the study then rants about the various things that can be "substituted for Shakespeare" at various schools, cherry-picking various electives with titles like "Detective Fiction," "Digital Game Theory," or "Creatures, Aliens, and Cyborgs" and fulminating that these trendy classes are replacing Shakespeare. This isn't just misleading. It's outright dishonest. The authors of the study, having read the requirements for the fifty-two schools they're discussing, know full well that these courses don't fulfill the requirements that would otherwise demand Shakespeare. The schools offering the three courses I just named require courses in earlier literature, and those courses do NOT fulfill them. The authors of the study know this. They just pretend not to.

    Now, I myself could only benefit from more Shakespeare requirements. I'm a professor of Shakespeare, after all. And I certainly value Shakespeare at least as much as the folks who wrote this study did. But this report is a big nothing. When you take out the dishonesty and spin, it's less than nothing.

    A little background: this study is from ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is a conservative organization dedicated to having trustees and donors micromanage academic decisions that have traditionally been left to faculty. (ACTA says it's for "Academic Freedom & Excellence," but in practice it seems upset that academics have too much freedom to make academic judgements.) And ACTA, for its own reasons, limited its study to the fifty-two highest-ranked colleges and universities in the US, according to the US News & World Report rankings. (They got fifty-two by taking the top 25 "National Universities" and top 25 "Liberal Arts Colleges"; because of ties in the rankings, that's a bit more than 50). So they didn't bother looking at the schools the vast majority of students actually attend, which might or might not say something about ACTA's own biases.

    What is notable is that the focus on "Top 25" schools means that ACTA included three schools that do not have English majors. West Point, Harvey Mudd, and MIT have "literature" majors instead. MIT's literature major has two tracks, one of which looks like a traditional English major (and thus tracks its students toward studying Shakespeare) and one of which doesn't. The others have more general literature requirements that aren't necessarily focused on literature in English at all, which makes the lack of a Shakespeare requirement not terribly newsworthy. French and Classics majors mostly aren't required to take Shakespeare either. That didn't stop ACTA from listing these schools without English departments as schools where the "English major" doesn't include Shakespeare.

    Now, of the 52 schools that ACTA deigned to examine, it's true that only only 4 require a stand-alone course in Shakespeare-and-nothing-else. But there are three things that ACTA isn't telling you about:

    1. Historical period requirements. Nearly every school that ACTA surveyed, 47 of 52, requires English majors to take at least one course, and sometimes three or even four courses, in literature written before a certain date. For more than 40 of those schools, that date is 1800 or earlier; for another half-dozen or so, it is before 1900, 1850, or 1830.

    What does this mean? It means that to "get out" of taking Shakespeare you have to take something else from a similar time period, or earlier. There are about six schools on ACTA's list where you can hypothetically get off soft by reading Bleak House, Moby-Dick, or Wordsworth. (But to be fair, it would be pretty hard to fulfill all of Swarthmore's three required pre-1830 courses with writers from 1800-1830.)

    At the rest of the schools, the vast majority that ACTA looked at, the choice isn't between Shakespeare and Lady Gaga. It's between Shakespeare and Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer, or - at some places - Shakespeare and enormous quantities of Alexander Pope.

    In practice, most students fulfill these requirements either with a Shakespeare course or with a thematic course that includes a hefty amount of Shakespeare. (I once taught a course called "Love and Sex in Renaissance Literature" that included his sonnets, two of his plays, and his long poem Venus and Adonis, but also Sidney's sonnets, Spenser's sonnets, a chunk of The Faerie Queene, Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and healthy servings of poems by Donne, Herrick, Wyatt, Surrey, Petrarch, etc. This, by ACTA's lights, is "not a course focused on Shakespeare." And the word "sex" was in the title! Gadzooks!)

    If students don't fulfill these requirements with Shakespeare, they're often taking a course in early literature that's harder, less popular, or both. Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, and Donne are all more difficult for undergraduates to read, and more challenging on a line-by-line level, than Shakespeare is. And here's an insider's tip: the 18th century, although wonderful, is the least popular literary period for English majors. It's much easier to get students to read King Lear than Clarissa.

    This is not dumbing down the curriculum. Not by any means.  English majors graduating having "only" read Paradise Lost and not Hamlet is not a big crisis. But ACTA doesn't want to count these schools as "requiring Shakespeare." Smith College makes its students take TWO of three single-author courses: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Those who avoid Shakespeare by reading Chaucer and Milton aren't going to be especially ill-educated. And in practice, almost all of the students will take Shakespeare and one of the other two. What does ACTA say about this requirement? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required." Oh no, the sky is falling!

    2. Survey Courses. These are less popular than they once were, but several schools on ACTA's list still require students to take survey courses that include Shakespeare. Those courses have titles like "Major Poets," "Literary History," or "British Literature to 1700."

    Most of the few actual English departments that don't require courses before 1700, 1800, or 1850 require a survey instead. Some schools require a number of courses before 1800 AND the survey. So students do get taught Shakespeare, in a way that's required for all majors.

    This doesn't count for ACTA, either. So, for example, Yale University requires its majors to take THREE courses before 1800 AND two survey courses: "Major British Poets from Chaucer to Donne" (the semester that includes Shakespeare) and "Major British Poets from Milton to T.S. Eliot." But students can get out of the surveys by taking four advanced courses on the poets on the survey, two from each semester. So you could theoretically get a B.A. in English from Yale by reading The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost instead of Macbeth. But it would be a pretty rare student who does. Yale actually has a fairly conservative curriculum. But ACTA's verdict? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required."

    With requirements like that, does it have to be?

    3. Limits to the number of Shakespeare classes.

    Since the whole point of ACTA's polemic is that Shakespeare is being done wrong and pushed out of the curriculum, you'd think that they would point out that FIVE of the schools on their list limit the number of Shakespeare courses that can count toward requirements. (When we throw out the schools without English majors, that's 10% of ACTA's total.) At Bates, Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, and Rice students can only use ONE Shakespeare course to fulfill the pre-1800 requirements.

    This doesn't mean that students at those schools aren't allowed to take more than one Shakespeare class. It means that the second, third, and so on Shakespeare courses are just electives. More importantly, it means that those schools require their students to read challenging early literature besides Shakespeare. The problem isn't that students at these schools are avoiding Shakespeare. The problem is that they use Shakespeare to avoid Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney, Donne, and Milton. So students have to be steered to reading more widely in early periods.

    These schools don't require Shakespeare because Shakespeare is doing just fine on his own. Also, the dining halls at these schools do not require dessert. That's not some liberal War on Pudding. That's because the requirement isn't necessary in the first place.


    Obamacare took Shakespeare out of our schools.

    Finally there is some public ourcry!

    Can't argue with that.

    I didn't know that. Probably he was killed by an Obamacare death panel.

    At last someone understands this danger.

    THEY are after me.

    And I do not even like panels.

    But I aint gonna just sulk for chrissakes.

    Where was that kidney they promised me anyway?

    I heard he wasn't keeping up in class, and besides, just enough time to get through Hunger Games and Harry Potter. That archaic stuff is dragging our society down.

    I heard it was plagiarism. Dude kept bringing homework assignments into class claiming he wrote them when everybody knew he wasn't smart enough or educated enough to produce work of that quality.

    If you look in any one of Shakespeare's plays, all the letters to spell "Obama" are there.

    Thanks Obama! Ultimately it is Obama's fault because of course.  And even though I went to school in the 80's and took a Shakespeare class as an elective, it's still his fault nothing has changed at University. A silly side note though, way back then I was allowed to use my Fortran class as my foreign language elective... LOL. 

    However, that Shakespeare class was fabulous, we took a field trip to Ashland, and I've been going there yearly every since. 

    When I saw the headlines about this study, I had a feeling of deja vu. Note that the study "The Vanishing Shakespeare" is a follow-up to a 1996 study entitled "The Shakespeare File." Much of the same problematic methodology for gathering and analyzing information about major requirements in 1996 has been repeated -- and the media is once again reporting on press releases from this right-wing organization as though they are objective research. What makes this situation especially weird is that the same "crisis" identified in 1996 is supposed to be newsworthy once again in 2015 to folks who graduated from universities with nearly identical requirements for English majors in the 1990s and 2000s.

    As a graduate student (and whippersnapper) in 1996, I wrote a seminar paper about the idea of Shakespeare studies implied by "The Shakespeare File" for a cultural studies clas. As part of my research, I attended a public talk by one of the study's authors. I asked him during the question-and-answer period how he felt about the fact that my university at the time (much like my undergraduate institution) had lots of Shakespeare classes but often wound up discussing students to Shakespeare's plays in relation to gender studies, queer theory, performance theory, theatre history, and popular culture (topics the ACTA study suggested had replaced the "classic" curriculum). He declared that these sorts of classes highly problematic and not really Shakespeare. In sum, even if you teach Shakespeare, you don't teach Shakespeare according to ACTA unless you focus entirely on beautiful language and universal human values.

    Thanks for the comment, Erin. I think this is actually the THIRD time ACTA has trotted out the same basic nonsense survey (this time it's called "The Unkind'st Cut"); the only thing that changes is that they get lazier about how many schools they check.

    What they want is hard to imagine. Obviously, they hate anything they consider "modern" (any discussion of politics, race or gender, any form of theory, any pop culture, any film). But they go further, saying that English departments should not teach "ways of thinking" but "a body of knowledge."

    So I think they're arguing for an extremely naive form of reading, where students don't think about the books at all, but just learn the contents of famous books and presumably are taught that Shakespeare is great. That doesn't just bring us back to the 1950s. That brings us back to somewhere around 1905.

    What they're arguing for isn't "excellence." In practice, they want LESS rigorous courses: classes where students just learn the plots and maybe memorize lines. That isn't really college level work. And you certainly don't need to go to college to do it. And demanding that a stand-alone Shakespeare course be required for all majors means that Shakespeare will become a BEGINNER'S class, for students who haven't developed their skills much and who can't be expected to write as much as advanced students do. And when it's required for everyone, that means the faculty who might teach more advanced Shakespeare courses will be tied up teaching entry-level stuff. (Harvard still has a Shakespeare course requirement, but it can only manage that because an extremely renowned Shakespearean is willing to spend two-thirds of her time teaching it. Nothing is wrong with that, and her course is justly beloved, but it means that she doesn't teach many advanced courses at all; a pretty big investment on Harvard's part.)



    In practice, they want LESS rigorous courses: classes where students just learn the plots and maybe memorize lines.

    Probably the best way to kill the classics...


    Although some of the least curious or thoughtful students would enjoy it. The most motivated students would be turned off.

    What a weird impulse.  "I love Shakespeare.  Let's reduce the importance of his work to a bunch of memorizable phrases that young people can trot out at cocktail parties."  it's like Polonius lecturing on the Tragedy of Hamlet.

    As a graduate of Georgia Tech, I approve. I just want to look like I know something about the classics. I don't actually want to think too much about them. The good Doc will be thrilled to know that not only was I not required to take any Shakespeare, I have not taken a single English (or Literature) course since graduating from high school.

    We searched, but we have no records of a "Verified" having any taken classes as Georgia Tech. At all.

    And certainly not in our English class. Hell, this guy probably doesn't even know the lyrics to Free Bird.

    Since I don't need more than a close-enough, they'll-probably-get-some-Shakespeare requirement for English majors, I'm certainly okay with non-majors being required to skip him. Students at technical universities not being required to read Shakespeare doesn't freak me out.

    I have not taken a single math class since high school, and my college's "computer literacy" requirement involved writing something like an 8-line program in BASIC. Anything I've learned since (game theory, numbers theory, probability), I learned for fun.


    I have not taken a single math class since high school, and my college's "computer literacy" requirement involved writing something like an 8-line program in BASIC.

    This was the most unkindest cut of all…

    Like Reader's Digest explains, even the best writers need a bit of editing, including someone as out-of-the-mainstream as Shakespeare, so we've endeavoured to improve Shakespeare quite a bit, especially for modern audiences, though too much color might get in the way. Even Doc Cleveland's likely to agree on this one.

    You got me. I'm a big fan of that movie; I've been looking for it on DVD.

    Or torrent if needed.

    So, when do we found the American Council of Faculty and Alumni? I'm ready to start writing up and sending out press releases about what actually goes on in university classrooms!

    Love and Sex in Renaissance Literature??? Next you're going to tell us that Shakespeare was gay!

    PS The Faerie Queene?

    No. I'm going to tell you that "my better angel is a man right fair" is strictly Platonic.

    And then I'm going to tell you how gay Plato was.

    P S. Howe Edmund Spenserr spelleth ys biyond my controulle.

    No he was just happy.


    A wife and at least one girl friend.

    At least that is what I have read.

    Even though there were all these boys dressed up as girls?

    Excellent piece, Doc.

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