Students & Parents | General Education

Skipping Shakespeare? Yes, English majors can often bypass the Bard

WASHINGTON POST   |  April 23, 2015 by Nick Anderson

William Shakespeare, born in England about this time 451 years ago, is in little jeopardy of being forgotten in literature or popular culture. His native language has gone global. His poetry and plays, endlessly influential, are read, translated, adapted and performed around the world.

But a new report has uncovered what to many might be a surprising fact: English majors at the vast majority of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States aren’t required to take a course focused in depth on Shakespeare.

“We have found our Bard suffering ‘the unkindest cut of all,’” said the authors of the report, from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, stealing a line from “Julius Caesar.” “At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare closely as an indispensable foundation for the understanding of English language and literature. But today — at the elite institutions we examined, public and private, large and small, east and west — he is required no more.”

Lamenting this state of affairs, the authors couldn’t resist tossing in another quote: “O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” (That one is from “Hamlet.”)

The four exceptions, among the 52 schools analyzed, were Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, the U.S. Naval Academy and Wellesley College. All four require English majors to take a Shakespeare class. The study looked at schools ranked among the top 25 on two U.S. News and World Report lists — national universities and national liberal arts colleges. Among them are Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities and the University of Virginia.

The council, based in Washington, says its mission is to “support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” The lead author of the report was Michael Poliakoff, the council’s vice president for policy.

The release of the report on April 23 coincides with what is thought to be Shakespeare’s birthday in 1564 (although the exact day isn’t certain), and with the 399th anniversary of his death in 1616.

But wait. No Shakespeare needed for English majors at Yale University? Or Amherst College? Or Williams College? Or Swarthmore College? Or any of those other ultra-selective, high-caliber schools?

Are they all dissing the Bard?

“No, not in the least,” said Langdon Hammer, chair of the English department at Yale. “Shakespeare is central to English literature. … What I mean is, everyone who writes in English has some relation to Shakespeare. Engagement with the plays, the poems, cuts throughout English literary history, down to yesterday.”

Hammer said English is “one of the most rigorous majors at Yale.” Students in the field must take two semesters focused on major English poets, he said, and there are requirements for historical breadth, one of which is often satisfied by taking a Shakespeare class. Yale offers many Shakespeare courses, including surveys in the major tragedies and comedies and romances.

“There are few English majors that don’t take at least two Shakespeare courses at Yale,” Hammer said, “and sometimes more.”

Hammer said faculty have at times wondered if their students are focused too much on Shakespeare. “I don’t think you want to fetishize Shakespeare, or anyone else,” he said.

Hammer, who holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in English from Yale, teaches modern poetry. He noted that he wrote his senior essay on Shakespeare. But he said Yale and others are also obliged to cover the full diversity of English literature, including writers with origins in Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia.

Geoffrey Sanborn, English chair at Amherst, said Shakespeare is perennially popular at the college, among English majors and others. “It’s not that we snub Shakespeare,” he said. The college recognizes Shakespeare’s centrality by including his works in many courses, he said.

But Sanborn said it’s important to remember that English is about more than its canon.

“Rather than conceiving of literature as great works written by a handful of great authors,” he said, “we conceive of literature as a basic form of expression that’s taken a wild variety of forms, in a range of cultures and across time.” Plays, poems, novels, essays and more. “We’re trying to create lifelong, engaged, animated readers,” he said.

Amherst, he said, “trusts students to be adult enough to choose, with help from their advisers, a path through the college.” Himself a specialist in 19th century American literature, Sanborn said he enjoys teaching plays such as “Othello” and “The Tempest” and “King Lear.”

In the past five years, Sanborn said, 57 percent of the 266 graduates in English from Amherst have taken at least one course devoted to Shakespeare.

Nora Johnson, chair of English at Swarthmore and a Shakespeare and Renaissance specialist, estimated that 75 percent of English majors and minors at the college take Shakespeare courses voluntarily. “And that does not count a number of classes that include Shakespeare in other contexts,” she said. Bottom line: “Shakespeare’s still our most popular author. We’re not losing him in any way.”

John Limon, chair of English at Williams, wrote a response via e-mail:

“Though we have no Shakespeare requirement, we do have more courses devoted to Shakespeare than to any other single author — usually four a year. In addition, we have a literary history requirement of one course before 1800 and another course before 1900. The combination of these facts means that a large majority of English majors take a Shakespeare course. In addition, each major has an advisor who is free to recommend taking at least one Shakespeare course, as I do. This last year, we have just added another Shakespeare/Renaissance scholar to our English faculty, so we are by no means devaluing Shakespeare.

However, we are increasingly trying to allow students to figure out, with all sorts of nudges from us, how to make sense of the curriculum in English literature. For certain purposes, Milton might be a more important figure for fulfilling the pre-1800 requirement: e.g., for students of nineteenth-century American literature. And there are students who can make good use of the English major for all sorts of purposes, which lead them in many directions but not to a course in Shakespeare. A student, for example, who is interested in making use of the English major to learn the best techniques of cultural analysis may not find his or her way to the greatest writer in the English language, and that may be too bad in several ways, but it does not invalidate that use of the major.”

Poliakoff, the report’s lead author, said he doesn’t accept these arguments.

“If you’re serious about something and find it of great importance, then you require it,” he said. “You don’t leave it to chance. You don’t leave it to whim.”


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