Trustees | General Education

The unkindest cut

JOURNAL SENTINEL ONLINE   |  April 22, 2007 by Mark Johnson

Hamlet stirs in Room 100.

“Act 3, Scene 1. Lines 55 and following. Let’s look closely at it. Miss Graf, will you please give us a reading,” says Marquette University associate professor John Curran.

The only sound: a hurried riffling of pages.

“Center of the whole thing,” Curran adds.

Allison Graf, a 20-year-old psychology major, takes a deep breath, then begins.

“To be or not to be: That is the question . . . ”

Arguably the most famous lines ever written.

Today, on what’s often celebrated as the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 (the exact date is unknown), the Bard’s own haunting question is being turned on his body of work.

Is it to be or not to be?

A new report contends that fewer and fewer college English majors are being required to study Shakespeare. In a 60-page report titled “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” the non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that only 15 of the 70 colleges and universities it examined require their English majors to take a Shakespeare course.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, the only Wisconsin school surveyed, is one of just three in the Big Ten to require Shakespeare, according to the council. Marquette University, not mentioned in the report, also requires that English majors take a Shakespeare course.

The tone of the new report is nothing if not dramatic.

“If reading Shakespeare is not central to a liberal education, what is?” the authors ask, adding, “A degree in English without Shakespeare is like an M.D. without a course in anatomy. It is tantamount to fraud.”

But others dismiss such thinking as intellectual hysteria, expressing a view of the report best summed up with the Bard’s own words: “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”

“I can’t imagine the study of Shakespeare has diminished in any way,” says Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, a Manhattan-based humanities organization. “I look at curricula all the time, and I know that English majors are reading Shakespeare. I have absolutely no doubt about that.”

“You have a real paradox here,” says Tom McBride, who has taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years at Beloit College, where the subject is not required.

“On the one hand, Shakespeare is bigger than ever. You have movies based on Shakespeare’s plays. He is a huge, huge factor in our culture. On the other hand, you can go to Barnes & Noble and buy books called ‘Shakespeare Made Easy.’ They are like modern editions of the Bible that turn everything into American, easy-to-understand English.”

Bigger struggle

The debate over Shakespeare goes to the heart of a much larger struggle for identity and mission at colleges and universities.

On one side are those who believe that institutions have so fully embraced pop culture, diversity and social/political issues of every flavor that they are watering down what’s truly important and failing to stress the classics. On the other side stand those who believe universities must broaden their offerings to remain relevant, and that such efforts pose no threat to the Big Three: Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton.

“I really do think we’re at a crossroads in academia and we’re having a tough time making the call,” says Curran, of Marquette. “We want to be welcoming to new areas, but we do want to be held accountable and produce English majors who are really English majors.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been an especially active participant in this larger debate.

Founded in 1995 by a group that included Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and Lynne V. Cheney, wife of the vice president, the council says it is committed to “academic freedom, excellence and accountability” in higher education. Its report on Shakespeare goes well beyond the lack of course requirements, targeting new literature courses that “address a multiplicity of non-literary topics,” including adoption, AIDS, film noir, “Baywatch” and Madonna.

“Essentially a course in Shakespeare counts the same as these courses,” says Anne D. Neal, president of the council. “But to leave Shakespeare out of one’s education is a serious disservice to these students. The college curriculum has essentially become a do-it-yourself kit.”

Feal, of the Modern Language Association, believes those at the council suffer from “a nostalgia for a kind of literary studies frozen in time. . . . New learning, new scholarship and new ways of teaching are not automatically suspect.” She points to the enormous popularity of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography “Will in the World,” and predicts that large numbers of students will continue to study Shakespeare whether or not it is required.

‘The greatest writer’

McBride would prefer mandatory Shakespeare, not only for the English majors but for all students at Beloit College.

“In order to be culturally literate, you really have to be exposed to the greatest writer who ever lived,” he says.

UW-Madison associate professor Henry S. Turner has taught Shakespeare since 2000 and says there is a simple reason why the author is a requirement for English majors.

“Every discipline needs some fundamentals,” he says. “Shakespeare is fundamental. A lot of people would rightly say that he is the most influential writer in English.”

That is the very reason Marquette English major Stephen McDonald supports his school’s Shakespeare requirement. Many of the great writers who came to prominence after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 have referred to his plays in their own work.

“In order to understand them,” says McDonald, “one should look at the original.”

A decade of teaching Shakespeare has led Curran finally to this explanation of his greatness: “I don’t know that anybody has his batting average. Lot of hits. Lot of home runs. I find ‘King Lear’ the most powerful, ‘Othello’ the most touching and ‘Hamlet’ the most perplexing.”

Ah, Hamlet. Curran has been wrestling with him for years. That intellectual duel led to Curran’s 2006 book, “Hamlet, Protestantism and the Mourning of Contingency.”

Now, in Room 100, his student Allison Graf finds herself in the grips of the same baffling foe. Reading aloud makes her nervous, and this feels like the play’s pinnacle. Her voice quickens.

“To die–to sleep./To sleep–perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub!/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/”

Words like vintage wine to an English major.

But what of a psychology major such as Graf? Has Hamlet anything to teach about the human mind?

“Ohhhh, yeah!” Graf says.


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