Fewer of America’s top colleges and universities across the country require English majors to study William Shakespeare, according to a new study released this month by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The study, called the Vanishing Shakespeare—released in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23—surveyed the top 25 national universities and liberal arts colleges listed by U.S. News & World Report, the Big Ten, select public schools in New York and California, and schools around Washington, D.C.
The study found that out of 70 universities, only 15 of them require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare. The University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are the only Big Ten schools that require Shakespeare.
“A degree in English without Shakespeare is like an M.D. without a course in anatomy,” the report said. “It is tantamount to fraud.”
Susan Sweeney, theatre and drama professor at UW, said the study seems to be in line with the vanishing number of arts courses for younger students, but added that too many people are devoted to what Shakespeare offers to let it go.
“I do not think a liberal arts student is well rounded without a healthy dose of Shakespeare,” Sweeney said. “The theater department does not require it, but without that course, students know they are not well-rounded actors.”
Sweeney said this debate points to the fact students need a well-rounded curriculum, and Shakespeare has been a part of it.
“[Shakespeare] has been around for years in most institutions,” Sweeney said. “I haven’t seen any education where Shakespeare is on its way out. Shakespeare is very much with us.”
Michael Shapiro, English professor at the University of Illinois, said Shakespeare is essential to a liberal arts education and agrees with department policies of requiring it for English majors. He said lessons in Shakespeare carry over into discussions of the modern-day world.
“In the teaching of Shakespeare, there are ideas that are relevant to our own historical moment,” Shapiro said. “There are things in his plays that bar quite specifically in life to issues of diversity such as in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ or how racial tensions look a little different—not being related to slavery.”
Shapiro said there is no question universities have to make choices because it is impossible to expect everyone to read everything, but he added that it should be included in a humanities survey course or in a theatre course for other students.
“If we stop teaching [Shakespeare], we are cutting ourselves from the tradition of English literature,” Shapiro said. “If we don’t know Shakespeare, we tune ourselves out from those dialogues.”
In addition, the report found with Shakespeare requirements declining, universities are offering more courses on popular culture, children’s literature, sociology and politics.
At Dartmouth College, for example, one course titled “Of Nags, Bitches and Shrews: Women and Animals in Western Literature,” discusses topics on how women’s rights correspond with advances toward the treatment of animals and why women choose to work for these advances.
Similarly, at the University of Pennsylvania, a class is devoted to the “cult of a celebrity,” examining pop idols and famous people such as Greta Garbo and Madonna.
“In most of today’s English departments, Shakespeare is no longer required reading,” Anne Neal, president of ACTA, said in a release. “Instead, [Shakespeare] is an elective—no more important than a course on Madonna and ‘bodies studies.’ What are these colleges thinking?”
Shapiro said students can get plenty of popular culture on their own and they do not need professors to teach it.
“Unless there is some special kind of analysis, students would have a much better grasp of popular culture than people of my generation,” Shapiro said. “Students rely on professors to assist them in analyzing Shakespeare.”
Sweeney said that it is true Shakespeare teaches students about human nature but added it is not more important than other forms of literature, like pop culture.
“A well-rounded education would include both Shakespeare and pop culture,” Sweeney said. “A student may lean more toward one, but it is very important to balance both.”