Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Be or Not to Be

That is the question. Or more accurately, the question is, “do today’s college students know who wrote that line and understand its context?”  Should they? Do they need to recognize a Shakespearean quote in a modern mystery novel to enjoy the story?  Or better yet, get the point in a line of dialogue?  Digging into the latest brouhaha about English curriculums makes me wonder. I learned of the most recent flare-up in this contentious debate when I read an excerpt from an interview with Christina Hoff Sommers in the WSJ’s Notable & Quotable: 

The Millennials have been cheated out of a serious education by their Baby Boomer teachers. Call it a generational swindle. Even the best and brightest among the 20-somethings have been shortchanged. Instead of great books, they wasted a lot of time with third-rate political tracts and courses with titles like "Women Writers of the Oklahoma Panhandle." Instead of spending their college years debating and challenging received ideas, they had to cope with speech codes and identity politics. College educated young women in the U.S. are arguably the most fortunate people in history; yet many of them have drunk deeply from the gender feminist Kool-Aid. Girls at Yale, Haverford and Swarthmore see themselves as oppressed. That is madness. And madness can only last so long.  

Nothing about Shakespeare, per se, but that excerpt reminded me of a rash of articles several years ago on the demise of courses teaching the great authors, so I set out to revisit those. This note from a 2007 study, The Vanishing Shakespeare, sums up the shift that caught my attention back then: 

At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare as one of the preeminent representatives of English lan­guage and literature. But today—on campuses public and private, large and small, east and west—he is required no more…English majors today find a mind-boggling array of courses that cen­ter on politics, sociology and popular culture—courses notable not be­cause they focus on great literature, but because they focus on everything but. English classes address a multiplicity of non-literary topics such as (in their own words): adoption (Yale University); AIDS (Princeton Uni­versity); animals, cannibals, and vegetables (Emory University); African cinema (University of Chicago); the conceptual black body (Mount Holy­oke College); diasporic ecological literature (Bates College); film noir (Columbia University); globalism (University of Virginia); Hollywood in the 1970s (American University); Baywatch (Northwestern University); Madonna (University of Pennsylvania); migration—forced and voluntary (Vassar); policing and prisons (Cornell University); queer mobility (Penn State University); radical vegetarian manifestos (University of Pennsyl­vania); rock and roll (University of California at San Diego); socialist and capitalist philosophies (Macalaster College); teen identity (Purdue University); Wild West shows and vaudeville (Swarthmore College); and Vietnam and Iraq (Bowdoin College). 

 Back then, Harvard was the only Ivy League university requiring its English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. By 2009, another article, The Decline of the English Department, noted that Harvard had changed its curriculum for undergrads, though English major requirements were not called out.

Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—Arrivals, Poets, Diffusions, and Shakespeares. The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries… the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson…that“our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” 

As do these authors, I continue to be dismayed by the dismantling of English curriculums. In the spirit of two sides to every argument, though, I feel compelled to note Slate Magazine’s rebuttal, Alas, Poor Shakespeare: 

Yet another conservative commentator is decrying English departments falling to “victimhood” studies. Too bad it’s not true.  Literature students have a brand new “classic” to study: the Political Correctness Killed Shakespeare article. 

Is this all “much ado about nothing?”   This former English teacher thinks not.

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