Students & Parents | General Education

Shakespeare getting little love from American colleges

William Shakespeare has stiff competition on campus today.
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE   |  April 23, 2015 by Nanette Asimov

American academia is lowering the curtain on William Shakespeare more than 4½ centuries after his birth.

Happy 451st birthday, Bill.

A new study finds that English departments at just four of 52 top-ranked universities require English majors to take a course on the 16th century playwright and poet who is considered the English-speaking world’s greatest man of letters.

UC Berkeley is one of the four.

“Our department feels very strongly about this,” said Professor Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, who chairs the English department at UC Berkeley. “Shakespeare is the single most influential writer in English. Not only that, he’s one of the most supremely absorbing writers in any language. We couldn’t imagine how a student could achieve a degree in English without taking a course in Shakespeare.”

Only Harvard, Wellesley and the United States Naval Academy share that view, according to the study released Thursday — believed to be the Bard’s birthday — by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that focuses on academic freedom and holding “colleges and universities accountable.”

Universities surveyed
The study, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile,” looks at the 26 top-ranked universities in the nation — including the eight Ivy League schools — and the 26 top liberal arts colleges as ranked by this year’s U.S. News & World Report, and found more than 92 percent do not require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare.

Stanford is one of them.

“The Stanford English department defines its required courses according to broad concepts and historical periods, rather than single authors,” said its chairman, Gavin Jones, noting that Shakespeare is covered in introductory courses and electives. “So, the Bard is still alive and well in our department.”

Pomona College near Los Angeles, one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges, doesn’t require Shakepeare in part because the school has just 1,600 students and fewer than 200 faculty members, making it hard to lock in a Shakespeare course, said Kevin Dettmar, the English department chair.

Choosing authors
Instead, English majors spend a semester focusing on one author of their choice, and the Shakespeare class always fills up to the maximum of 18 students, as do classes on Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Toni Morrison, to name a few.

“It would be disingenuous to pretend that Shakespeare doesn’t have a different kind of cultural authority than any other author,” Dettmar said. “It does. But we are trying to diversify the student body. Their faces don’t look like the faces of the students who took the required Shakespeare course at 18th century Harvard. There is other literature that connects more to their experience.”

Anne Neal, president of the council that conducted the study, rejects that argument.

“Although it’s surely important for college students to study a wide array of literature from every part of the world, it is frankly ridiculous to be graduating future English teachers who have little more than a high school knowledge of Shakespeare. … We’ll be writing to trustees at every institution asking why they are dis-serving students in this way.”

The study shows that schools have plenty of substitutes for Shakespeare, who is credited with writing 37 plays and 154 sonnets.

At the University of Pennsylvania last fall, students could take “Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance from Chaucer to Tarantino” to fulfill the Ivy League school’s early literature requirement. The catalog described the works as “readable, often salacious, and certainly never dull.”

At Cornell, “Love and Ecstasy: Forms of Devotion in Medieval English Literature” helps fulfill the pre-1800 literature course requirement. At Haverford, “not a single course on the Bard” is offered on campus, the study says.

As Duke Senior says in “As You Like It,” “True is it that we have seen better days.”

Or as the study’s lead author, Michael Poliakoff says, English departments that eschew a Shakespeare requirement yet claim to provide a true liberal arts education are “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”

Shakespeare does beg to be quoted. But after four centuries, even the Shakespeare joke has gotten old: “Why are his plays so filled with cliches?”

Some professors say there are great reasons to study Shakespeare (though none as good as murmuring a Shakespeare sonnet to woo your sweetheart).

“Shakespeare is a really good way of explaining literary history,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Salinas, associate chair of the English department at the United States Naval Academy, which requires English majors to study Shakespeare.

Parallel storylines
On Thursday, Salinas is teaching “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville. Students familiar with “Hamlet” will recognize that when Starbuck thinks of killing Ahab and decides not to, Melville echoes Hamlet thinking of killing Claudius and deciding not to, Salinas said.

“Shakespeare becomes the lingua franca in the department,” he said. “So when you’re reading ‘Moby Dick’ you can point out the references and they have that aha! moment, rather than having to laboriously explain.”

At Berkeley, O’Brien O’Keeffe said she is sorry there are so few schools that still require Shakespeare. “But I’m glad we’re one of them.”


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