Trustees | General Education

To be or not to be? At U.S. colleges, it’s increasingly “not”

CHICAGO SUN TIMES   |  May 21, 2007 by Anne D. Neal

The world loves Shakespeare. But American universities don’t.

That is the conclusion of a new study released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The report, “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” surveyed English curricula at 70 major American colleges and universities. Only 15 require their English majors to take a course on Shakespeare. The rest allow the English teachers of tomorrow to graduate without studying the language’s greatest writer in depth.

Only one institution requires Shakespeare in the Ivy League–Harvard. And a mere three others of U.S. News’ top 25 liberal arts colleges–Middlebury, Smith and Wellesley–require the study of the Bard.

At most of America’s top colleges, Shakespeare is simply an elective–one among many. That puts him on a par with literature courses on “Nags, Bitches and Shrews” at Dartmouth; Los Angeles, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Baywatch at Northwestern; baseball at Emory, and “Cool Theory,” at Duke, where students devote themselves to the study of a single word of American slang.

It used to be that our colleges and universities could be counted on to introduce students to the central works, events and figures who have shaped our world as part of a shared conversation. But not anymore.

Students can now graduate from most of the top-ranked colleges in America without having much meaningful exposure to anything. Indeed, in today’s academy, there has been a breakdown in the belief that a shared core of learning is important, or that some subjects are more worthy than others. As former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis explains in Excellence without a Soul: “Universities are having a hard time making the case that the education they offer is about anything in particular. ‘Breadth’ and ‘choice’ have become goals in themselves.”

Mind you, most colleges claim otherwise. Haverford College’s English department, for example, claims to “maintain a working balance between an enduring commitment to the traditional canon of English and American literature and an expanding horizon of fresh concerns.” And yet, there the Bard is not even an option. In 2006-2007, Haverford College’s English department did not offer a single Shakespeare course.

And it’s not just Shakespeare who’s in trouble. When ACTA surveyed the general education requirements of 50 colleges in 2004, 88 percent did not require a broad literature survey and 86 percent did not require a basic American history or civics course. That’s why institutions like UCLA–which requires its English majors to take Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton–are rare, but Hamilton College, which recently scuttled plans for a new scholarly center to study its namesake, Alexander Hamilton, is nothing unusual.

The idea that the Bard and the Founders are unworthy of special attention, of course, does not have much currency in the outside world. That’s surely the case in the Windy City, where the Web site for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater highlights “acclaimed productions of William Shakespeare’s canon.” Why is it, then, that our colleges have such different values?

A college curriculum should not be a do-it-yourself kit. But that is, in fact, what it has become. Instead of directing the next generation of Americans to the most important authors and ideas that ensure an educated person, our universities have abdicated their professional responsibility in favor of “anything goes.”

In our global world, it is surely more important than ever for college graduates to understand the civilization that produced them. But if our colleges don’t insist that even their English majors study Shakespeare, who will pass on that knowledge to future generations?

Trustees, alumni, parents and students should not sit idly by while the attack on academic values goes unchallenged. It is imperative that all of us demand change and essential that our colleges and universities refocus their efforts on academic quality and academic value. Restoring Shakespeare to his proper place would be a good place to start.


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