The Classics on Campus: Looking for William Shakespeare

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Mention the classics on college campuses today and you are lucky if you get references to Coca-Cola or cars—and that’s in the faculty lounges and administration offices.

One of our readers summed up the change in college education in an e-mail to us. “My God,” he wrote, “when I went to university I studied Plato, Socrates, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, European and World History, French Literature, and Canadian History, to mention a few of the courses I took. And I was taking Engineering!”

Researchers at the University of California estimate that less than 2 percent of American colleges have what could be called “a true core curriculum.” Eight years ago, the National Alumni Forum (NAF) surveyed 70 colleges and universities to see what they offered as core curricula. “Of the 70 universities,” they found, “only 23 now require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.”

The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) found even more disheartening news in its 2003 report, Death of the Liberal Arts? The IWF looked at the schools that U.S. News & World Report ranked as the top 10 liberal-arts colleges.

Their findings?

“Bowdoin has the dubious distinction of being the only top-ten undergraduate liberal-arts college that doesn’t offer freshmen any Shakespeare.” Bowdoin College is located in Maine.

Swarthmore requires English majors to take three courses on literature written before 1830 and three on the literary output produced after that benchmark year. As the IWF puts it, “Swarthmore requires as much study of these authors who have written in the last 173 years as of the previous 1,730 years combined.” Swarthmore sits outside of Philadelphia, Pa.

When a school requires the study of Shakespeare, their required courses, in turn, look at the Bard rather loosely. At Sen. Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley, in Massachusetts, English majors are required to take a Shakespeare course, but the department’s offerings focus on such questionable themes as “gender relations and identities” in his work.

This flexible interpretation of the liberal arts more closely mirrors the trend in academia today. For example, freshmen can take a course called, “Green World,” at Williams College, which is also in Massachusetts.

“Green World” examines “ways in which literature has constructed and interpreted the green-written world as the archetypal symbol of man’s desire to transform chaos into civilization and art—to tame, order, idealize, and copy nature’s bounty while humanizing, plundering and destroying the environment.”

Such an offering, in turn, pales in comparison to courses offered at other schools such as Cornell and Amherst. Cornell offers a course in “Gay Fiction.” Not to be outdone, Amherst features a more specialized class in “Black Gay Fiction.”

Why study classic authors in place of apparently more “cutting edge” writers? The NAF quotes one teacher who summed it up rather well: “If our teachers do not know Shakespeare, how can they convince students that the study of the history of their language is important?”

We thought our previously mentioned reader came to a rather poignant conclusion. “Thank God I graduated from a university nearly fifty years ago,” he wrote.

“At that time our goal was to end up as educated and tolerant people when we had finished our studies.”

Following that same timeline, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) report that “many students graduate from college with less knowledge about the world and fewer useful skills than high schoolers of fifty years ago.”

“Whether the subject is history, science, mathematics, English, or any other, both surveys and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that many recipients of college diplomas these days have a thin and patchy education; rather than the strong general education that used to be the hallmark of college graduates.”

For their part, both the ACTA and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have produced guides to core curricula that center around the classics. Now, if only we could get college administrators and professors to read them.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.