Trustees | General Education

I am dying, Egypt

THE NEW REPUBLIC   |  May 2, 2007 by Robert Brustein

A recent report isued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni documents what we already know: Shakespeare is no longer valued in our educational system. Of course, the beleaguered bard has never had a very strong foothold in secondary schools where many English teachers, if they teach Shakespeare at all, introduce him to students through rote memorization of a few soliloquies–hardly a recipe for lifelong devotion to blank verse. Sixty years years after completing his senior year in highschool, my brother can still quote “Is this a dagger which I see before me” without understanding a single word of it.

But the ACTA report is not about the torments of secondary school education. It concerns the fate of Shakespeare courses in colleges and universities. Entitled “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” the report asserts that at three-quarters of the institutions surveyed, which is to say 15 out of 70 of our leading colleges and universities, English majors are no longer asked to take a single course in Shakespeare’s plays. And if you think this omission only applies to huge state institutions, look at the Ivy League universities where Harvard alone still considers Shakespeare a requirement. “Thus,” the report mournfully concludes, “55 of 70 schools we surveyed allow English majors–including future English teachers–to graduate without studying the language’s greatest writer in depth.”

In 1996, that number was 47 out of 70, which suggests that, at the present rate of attrition, in twenty years you won’t find a Shakespeare course anywhere in the country. “I am dying, Egypt, dying,” says Antony to Cleopatra. “I am dying, America, dying,” Shakespeare could be saying to us. I suppose we shouldn’t get too exercised by this. It is just another example of the precipitous decline in literacy America has been experiencing in recent times where, according to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts survey quoted in the report, less than half of the adult population in the United States has read a single work of literature, of any kind, during a full year. Indeed, this kind of statistic has greatly distressed our “No Child Left Behind” President, a self-proclaimed omnivorous reader, who recently wondered aloud, “Is our children learning?” (We might ask the same of our worried Chief Executive: Is you?)

The report takes note that abandoning Shakespeare does not mean that our higher education system is abandoning requirements. No, it’s just that there are now more urgent things to include on the reading list. “While Shakespeare and other traditionally acclaimed authors such as Chaucer and Milton are no longer required, many institutions such as Rice, Oberlin, and Vanderbilt require students to study ‘non-canonical traditions,’ ‘under-represented cultures,’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature.'”

“And at the University of Virginia,” the report continues, “English majors can avoid reading Othello in favor of studying ‘Critical Race Theory’ which explores why race ‘continues to have vital significance in politics, education, culture, arts, and everyday social realities,’ including ‘sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism.'”

A recent newspaper cartoon shows two young girls walking out of a school. One turns to the other and says, “I have two mommies.” The other replies, “How much is two?”


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