ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Publications: Executive Summary

The Vanishing Shakespeare Executive Summary

April 2007

As this report goes to press, our nation’s capital is in the midst of a six-month, city-wide celebration of William Shakespeare. With this celebration as a backdrop, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni researched how Shakespeare fits into English curricula at 70 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities. What we found is, to quote the Bard, “the unkindest cut of all.”

At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare as one of the preeminent representatives of English language and literature. But today—on campuses public and private, large and small, east and west—he is required no more.

At more than three-quarters of the institutions ACTA surveyed, English majors are not required to take a course on Shakespeare. The trend has been present for decades, but it has significantly worsened over the past ten years. And as schools relax requirements relating to Shakespeare and other great authors, courses that have more to do with popular culture and current events are multiplying.


To determine where Shakespeare stands in today’s curriculum, ACTA surveyed English departments at the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities and top 25 liberal arts colleges, as well as the Big Ten schools and select public universities in New York and California. With the current festivities in our nation’s capital in mind, we also looked at universities in or near the District of Columbia. Appendix A gives a full listing of the schools studied, together with summaries of their English major requirements.

Today, a mere 15 of these 70 colleges and universities require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. Those institutions are:

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Catholic University
  • Harvard University
  • Middlebury College
  • Smith College
  • Stanford University
  • State University of New York at Binghamton
  • State University of New York at Buffalo
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of California at Los Angeles
  • University of the District of Columbia
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • Wellesley College

This figure reflects a generous definition of requiring Shakespeare. ACTA credited a college or university with a Shakespeare requirement when a majority of its English majors were obliged either to take a course in Shakespeare or to take two out of three single-author courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.1

What do these figures mean? For starters, only one Ivy League university, Harvard, requires its English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. Only four of the top 25 national universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report have a Shakespeare requirement: Berkeley, Cal Tech, Harvard, and Stanford. The top 25 liberal arts colleges fare even worse, with only three—Middlebury, Smith, and Wellesley—requiring their English majors to study Shakespeare.

Turning to large public universities, only three from the Big Ten (Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) require Shakespeare. And even though Washington, DC is devoting the first half of 2007 to a celebration of Shakespeare, just two schools in the area, Catholic University and the University of the District of Columbia, require their English majors to study him.

Ivy League:  One school requires Shakespeare
Top 25 National Universities: Four require Shakespeare
Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: Three require Shakespeare
Big Ten: Three require Shakespeare
Washington, DC-Area Schools:  Two require Shakespeare

Thus, 55 of the 70 schools we surveyed allow English majors—including future English teachers—to graduate without studying the language’s greatest writer in depth.2

At most colleges and universities, Shakespeare courses can be taken as electives to fulfill broad historical distribution requirements, as outlined in Appendix A. And yet, as a quick glance at existing requirements shows, Shakespeare holds no favored place. A course on Shakespeare may count the same as the study of Renaissance food (Swarthmore College), Renaissance things (University of Chicago), and medieval writing about flogging, stabbing, and rape (University of Pennsylvania).

Increasingly, colleges and universities envision a major in “English” not as a body of important writers, genres, and works that all should know, but as a hodgepodge of courses reflecting diverse interests and approaches. (See Appendix B.) After redesigning the English major at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, the department’s undergraduate chairman told The Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper that “We might not agree on what we think English is, but we could all agree that our curriculum should reflect the makeup of our faculty.”3 Such a philosophy results in course offerings being driven not by the intellectual needs of students, but often by the varied interests and agendas of the faculty. As a consequence, it is possible for students to graduate with a degree in English without thoughtful or extended study of central works and figures who have shaped our literary and cultural heritage.

  1. Although numerous schools require majors to take a survey of British medieval and Renaissance literature, they often do not guarantee that surveys will include Shakespeare or will provide exposure of any significant depth. Accordingly, for the purposes of this study, we do not classify those schools as requiring Shakespeare.
  2. ACTA (then known as National Alumni Forum) first investigated this issue in 1996, when we issued a report called The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying. This study reviewed the top 25 universities and top 25 liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report, public universities in New York and California, as well as several institutions included for regional balance. At that time, 23 of the 70 schools surveyed required their English majors to study Shakespeare. Eight of those 23 have since dropped the requirements: Claremont McKenna College; Duke University; Hamilton College; State University of New York at Stony Brook; University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Southern Califorrnia; University of Virginia; and Washington University in St. Louis. Schools surveyed in the 1996 and 2007 studies overlap but are not identical.
  3. Molly Petrilla, “Proposed English major offers expanded options,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, January 15, 2004.