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English Majors Don’t Have to Study Shakespeare, Report Finds

Some birthday present: of 70 top colleges, only 15 require the Bard
April 19, 2007

WASHINGTON, DC—According to a new study, fewer and fewer of America’s top colleges require English majors to take a course on William Shakespeare. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is releasing the study in conjunction with Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23 as the nation’s capital continues a six-month celebration of his work.

“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.”

The institutions surveyed were U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities and its top 25 liberal arts colleges, the Big Ten, select public universities in New York and California, and schools in or around the nation’s capital. A chart summarizing the requirements follows.

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 report concludes with suggested actions for trustees and alumni who are concerned over the state of their institutions’ English curricula.

In the coming weeks and months, ACTA will send The Vanishing Shakespeare to trustees and alumni nationwide. The study has also been advertised in playbills distributed to thousands of Washington theatergoers and previewed in the nation’s highest-circulation newspaper, USA Today. And on Shakespeare’s birthday—Monday—ACTA will launch a special website, VanishingShakespeare.org, featuring the report, action plans, and related radio and arts programs.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a bipartisan, national nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality, and accountability in higher education. ACTA has a network of trustees and alumni around the country and has issued numerous reports including Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, The Hollow Core, and Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.

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Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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