‘Tis high time the nation’s top colleges require their English majors to take a course on William Shakespeare. So says the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Of 52 colleges and universities reviewed, only four – Harvard; the University of California, Berkeley; the U.S. Naval Academy; and Wellesley – require a Shakespeare course, according to the study, released Thursday on the playwright’s 451st birthday.
“The Bard, who is the birthright of the English speaking world, has no seat of honor,” lamented the report, titled “The Unkindest Cut.”
Most colleges studied offer Shakespeare courses as options for fulfilling a major’s requirements.
For instance, a course called “Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino” at the University of Pennsylvania counts the same as a Shakespeare course toward the Early Literature to 1660 requirement, the report noted.
At Swarthmore, “Renaissance Sexualities” can substitute for Shakespeare to fulfill the pre-1800 requirement.
How do local academics see the report? Much ado about nothing.
“We don’t require any authors by name,” said Nora Johnson, professor and chair of the English department at Swarthmore.
Roughly three-quarters of the college’s English majors choose to take Shakespeare, whose writings are featured in other courses, she said.
“We are very confident we can get students a terrific education by building on the things they know and love,” she said, “and requirements aren’t always the best way to do that.”
Most students arrive at the nation’s top colleges already steeped in Shakespeare, noted Penn scholars.
When professor Rebecca Bushnell asked 70 Penn freshmen last year how many had read a Shakespeare play, all but two – both international students – said yes.
Penn requires majors to take several courses in pre-1700 literature and last semester alone offered four Shakespeare courses, noted Michael Gamer, undergraduate English chair.
“We’ve found pretty much all of our students take it,” he said.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which has long advocated for strong core curriculums, contends that colleges are focusing less on the classics and more “on politics, sociology, popular culture, and sexuality, courses notable not because they focus on great literature, but on everything but that heritage.”
For tens of thousands of dollars, the report continued, “students can now spend some of their precious collegiate time at Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Bowdoin College – and other institutions – studying the works of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lemony Snicket, and J.K. Rowling.”
Swarthmore’s Johnson said its courses thoughtfully integrated classic authors’ works with those from the world in which students live.
“We try to be very flexible and creative,” she said.