Friday, April 24, 2015

No, Colleges Still Teach Shakespeare

You may have seen news stories, timed for Shakespeare's more-or-less birthday, claiming that top American colleges have stopped requiring Shakespeare. This is not news (nothing about college requirements has changed lately), and not really true. The study uses a very specific and misleading definition which allows it not to count most of the ways that Shakespeare is actually taught in college English departments. The study refuses to accept anything but a required stand-alone Shakespeare-only course as a "Shakespeare requirement." If Shakespeare is only part of required courses, that doesn't count. And if a department has a requirement that drives most of its students into Shakespeare courses, that doesn't count either. This is misleading.

Worse, the study then rants about the various things that can be "substituted for Shakespeare" at various schools, cherry-picking various electives with titles like "Detective Fiction," "Digital Game Theory," or "Creatures, Aliens, and Cyborgs" and fulminating that these trendy classes are replacing Shakespeare. This isn't just misleading. It's outright dishonest. The authors of the study, having read the requirements for the fifty-two schools they're discussing, know full well that these courses don't fulfill the requirements that would otherwise demand Shakespeare. The schools offering the three courses I just named require courses in earlier literature, and those courses do NOT fulfill them. The authors of the study know this. They just pretend not to.

Now, I myself could only benefit from more Shakespeare requirements. I'm a professor of Shakespeare, after all. And I certainly value Shakespeare at least as much as the folks who wrote this study did. But this report is a big nothing. When you take out the dishonesty and spin, it's less than nothing.

A little background: this study is from ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is a conservative organization dedicated to having trustees and donors micromanage academic decisions that have traditionally been left to faculty. (ACTA says it's for "Academic Freedom & Excellence," but in practice it seems upset that academics have too much freedom to make academic judgements.) And ACTA, for its own reasons, limited its study to the fifty-two highest-ranked colleges and universities in the US, according to the US News & World Report rankings. (They got fifty-two by taking the top 25 "National Universities" and top 25 "Liberal Arts Colleges"; because of ties in the rankings, that's a bit more than 50). So they didn't bother looking at the schools the vast majority of students actually attend, which might or might not say something about ACTA's own biases.

What is notable is that the focus on "Top 25" schools means that ACTA included three schools that do not have English majors. West Point, Harvey Mudd, and MIT have "literature" majors instead. MIT's literature major has two tracks, one of which looks like a traditional English major (and thus tracks its students toward studying Shakespeare) and one of which doesn't. The others have more general literature requirements that aren't necessarily focused on literature in English at all, which makes the lack of a Shakespeare requirement not terribly newsworthy. French and Classics majors mostly aren't required to take Shakespeare either. That didn't stop ACTA from listing these schools without English departments as schools where the "English major" doesn't include Shakespeare.

Now, of the 52 schools that ACTA deigned to examine, it's true that only only 4 require a stand-alone course in Shakespeare-and-nothing-else. But there are three things that ACTA isn't telling you about:

1. Historical period requirements. Nearly every school that ACTA surveyed, 47 of 52, requires English majors to take at least one course, and sometimes three or even four courses, in literature written before a certain date. For more than 40 of those schools, that date is 1800 or earlier; for another half-dozen or so, it is before 1900, 1850, or 1830.

What does this mean? It means that to "get out" of taking Shakespeare you have to take something else from a similar time period, or earlier. There are about six schools on ACTA's list where you can hypothetically get off soft by reading Bleak House, Moby-Dick, or Wordsworth. (But to be fair, it would be pretty hard to fulfill all of Swarthmore's three required pre-1830 courses with writers from 1800-1830.)

At the rest of the schools, the vast majority that ACTA looked at, the choice isn't between Shakespeare or Lady Gaga. It's between Shakespeare or Milton, Shakespeare or Chaucer, or - at some places - Shakespeare or enormous quantities of Alexander Pope.

In practice, most students fulfill these requirements either with a Shakespeare course or with a thematic course that include a hefty amount of Shakespeare. (I once taught a course called "Love and Sex in Renaissance Literature" that included his sonnets, two of his plays, and his long poem Venus and Adonis, but also Sidney's sonnets, Spenser's sonnets, a chunk of The Faerie Queene, Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and healthy servings of poems by Donne, Herrick, Wyatt, Surrey, Petrarch, etc. This, by ACTA's lights, is "not a course focused on Shakespeare." And the word "sex" was in the title! Gadzooks!)

If students don't fulfill these requirements with Shakespeare, they're often taking a course in early literature that's harder, less popular, or both. Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, and Donne are all more difficult for undergraduates to read, and more challenging on a line-by-line level, than Shakespeare is. And here's an insider's tip: the 18th century, although wonderful, is the least popular literary period for English majors. It's much easier to get students to read King Lear than Clarissa.

This is not dumbing down the curriculum. Not by any means.  English majors graduating having "only" read Paradise Lost and not Hamlet is not a big crisis. But ACTA doesn't want to count these schools as "requiring Shakespeare." Smith College makes its students take TWO of three single-author courses: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Those who avoid Shakespeare by reading Chaucer and Milton aren't going to be especially ill-educated. And in practice, almost all of the students will take Shakespeare and one of the other two. What does ACTA say about this requirement? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required." Oh no, the sky is falling!

2. Survey Courses. These are less popular than they once were, but several schools on ACTA's list still require students to take survey courses that include Shakespeare. Those courses have titles like "Major Poets," "Literary History," or "British Literature to 1700."

Most of the few actual English departments that don't require courses before 1700, 1800, or 1850 require a survey instead. Some schools require a number of courses before 1800 AND the survey. So students do get taught Shakespeare, in a way that's required for all majors.

This doesn't count for ACTA, either. So, for example, Yale University requires its majors to take THREE courses before 1800 AND two survey courses: "Major British Poets from Chaucer to Donne" (the semester that includes Shakespeare) and "Major British Poets from Milton to T.S. Eliot." But students can get out of the surveys by taking four advanced courses on the poets on the survey, two from each semester. So you could theoretically get a B.A. in English from Yale by reading The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost instead of Macbeth. But it would be a pretty rare student who does. Yale actually has a fairly conservative curriculum. But ACTA's verdict? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required."

With requirements like that, does it have to be?

3. Limits to the number of Shakespeare classes.

Since the whole point of ACTA's polemic is that Shakespeare is being done wrong and pushed out of the curriculum, you'd think that they would point out that FIVE of the schools on their list limit the number of Shakespeare courses that can count toward requirements. (When we throw out the schools without English majors, that's 10% of ACTA's total.) At Bates, Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, and Rice students can only use ONE Shakespeare course to fulfill the pre-1800 requirements.

This doesn't mean that students at those schools aren't allowed to take more than one Shakespeare class. It means that the second, third, and so on Shakespeare courses are just electives. More importantly, it means that those schools require their students to read challenging early literature besides Shakespeare. The problem isn't that students at these schools are avoiding Shakespeare. The problem is that they use Shakespeare to avoid Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney, Donne, and Milton. So students have to be steered to reading more widely in early periods.

These schools don't require Shakespeare because Shakespeare is doing just fine on his own. Also, the dining halls at these schools do not require dessert. That's not some liberal War on Pudding. That's because the requirement isn't necessary in the first place.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

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