The Forum | General Education

The Unkindest Cut: Eroding the English Degree

April 28, 2015 by Christine Ravold

If you aren’t reading this on a smart device, then you definitely have one nearby. At your disposal is an incredible amount of freedom and access to knowledge and culture that was once only possible for oligarchs and privileged landowners.

Maybe you’ve read Peter Lawler’s article which calls for greater responsibility and a renewed focus on content literacy. Technological literacy is a must-have in this age and especially in this job market. We demand techno-vocational literacy and expect economic literacy, but when it comes to determining the actual value of what we can potentially spend our free time consuming, as a whole, we come up short. A veritable library of consumable information and entertainment is available at the swipe of a finger. It’s a possessing and addictive luxury, but that ease of use, especially for the technologically literate, has become a problem all its own. When do we stop consuming this information and start critiquing its worth?

Just in time for Shakespeare’s 451st birthday, ACTA has prepared a new study about the oft-taken-for-granted prerequisite for English mastery: A dedicated course on William Shakespeare. At 451 years old, things are not looking so good for the Bard. In, The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare’s Exile in 2015, ACTA has uncovered a disturbing truth. Out of the top 52 colleges and universities ranked by the U.S. News and World Report, only four institutions require their English majors to take a class dedicated to the master of the English language.

It has never been easier to find a copy of Henry V, and yet fewer English majors are being exposed to the giants of the literary canon.

In place of Shakespeare, English majors at the University of Pennsylvania can take “Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance from Chaucer to Tarantino”. Swarthmore and Bowdoin permit “Renaissance Sexualities” to fill the same ‘Pre-1800’ requirement that a course on Shakespeare would fulfill. No doubt, these classes might make stimulating electives, but allowing students to choose them in place of Shakespeare is a sign that content literacy is in serious decline.

Mr. Lawler was right to identify that theory, “collaborative learning,” “competency,” and even “critical thinking” supersede the things we should rightly expect all holders of English degrees to know. In recent years, these purported virtues have muddled the English curriculums of dozens of well-regarded institutions. Instead, they create an inadequate substitution for answering the uncomfortable question of what constitutes a well-rounded and educated person.

Ideally, we would like to think that all self-respecting English scholars would choose to delve into Shakespeare, but in the absence of requirement, we see an inclination to indulge in thinly-veiled courses on pop culture and children’s literature, squandering an academic opportunity to tackle some of the best Western society has to offer.

The comprehensive study of Shakespeare even enhances the enjoyment and learning that can be found in more recent literary or cinematic works. What is House of Cards without Macbeth? Does reading Shakespeare’s sonnets improve the listening experience of Sting? Some of these pop-culture phenomena that are so readily enjoyed are meaningless at best, or impossible at worst, without Shakespeare serving as the backbone. The next generation is at risk of falling further into literary forgetfulness as our colleges and universities chip away at the foundations of the English literary tradition.


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