“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven,” William Shakespeare wrote in “Henry VI, Part II.”
Educators would likely agree. But for English majors at top schools including Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, a working knowledge of Shakespeare is no longer required, according to a study published Wednesday.
Indeed, only four of 52 universities and liberal-arts colleges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report required their English majors to take a class delving into Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and historical works, according to the study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The council is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit aimed at maintaining academic freedom and high standards of academic learning and accountability.
“Shakespeare is so utterly central to the development of English literature, it seems a contradiction in terms not to at least require one semester studying his works, in the same way that a math major does differential calculus,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the council and lead author of the study, which was released on the day believed to be Shakespeare’s birthday.
Instead, some schools offer courses on vampires, cyborgs and popular films and TV shows to fulfill English majors’ study requirements, Poliakoff said.
The most common “pop” course is film, including one such class on the Northwestern curriculum, he said.
The four universities that required a course dedicated to Shakespeare were Harvard University, Wellesley College, the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of California-Berkeley.
Poliakoff said that the council encourages all college students to study Shakespeare because the tough work involved in such a class can help prepare them for any job, including today’s highly sought-after engineering, data analytics, and app and web-development work.
“The exercise of confronting challenging, different and difficult texts is a carry-over skill that we all need in any professional context,” Poliakoff said.
He cited the findings of the study as further evidence of this country’s outspending every other nation in the world on higher education, yet coming out worse on graduation rates and literacy skills.
Northwestern University’s English department chair, Laurie Shannon, who was in London on Wednesday speaking on Hamlet at a conference at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, said in an email response that Shakespeare is “highly evident in our curriculum.”
Northwestern has “lots of offerings in Shakespeare; it’s one of the best places to study Shakespeare in the United States,” Shannon said. “Shakespeare doesn’t need to be ‘required’; between our great teachers and the appeal of his plays, students flock to those courses on their own.”
A University of Chicago spokeswoman said the school’s core curriculum for undergraduates includes many classic works of literature, including the works of Shakespeare.
“This academic year, the department offered a popular two-quarter course sequence focused solely on the works of Shakespeare, co-taught by early modern expert Timothy Harrison and renowned Shakespeare scholar Richard Strier,” said spokeswoman Susie Allen. “The department also offered a survey course on the history and theory of drama, which includes readings from Shakespeare, taught by distinguished Shakespeare expert David Bevington, as well as several courses on poetry and drama that include the works of Shakespeare.”
Poliakoff, though, said that serious programs require Shakespeare courses, which he said prepare students for the real world and help them grow as human beings.
“It would be very sad for students not to have experienced Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Julius Caesar; Richard III; Henry V and many others,” he said.