Slighting Shakespeare

Teaching the Bard in the Pacific Northwest

A London music hall ditty of some years past goes,
Shakespeare Sidebar —
“Shakespeare dead? Poor old Will!

Why, I never knew the old fellow was ill!”

But he is ill, at least in a majority of the universities of America, where a new report shows that even English majors no longer are required to take a course on one of the greatest writers–if not the greatest–in any language. The report, “The Shakespeare File: What English Majors are Really Studying,” produced by the National Alumni Forum, provides an insight into declining academic standards overall and the growing failure even to acknowledge standards.

At Georgetown University, for example, you can still take a course on Shakespeare, but despite a university administration effort to cloud the issue, you can graduate as an “English major” without doing so. The emphasis now is on “theory” and “a wide range of literary and non-literary genres such as mass media.” Within such “genres” are courses in “Gangster Films” and “Detective Fiction as Social Critique.” In the latter course the student learns what detective novels tell us about “the nuclear family, traditional masculine values, and capitalist ideology.”

You can understand why a 19 year old would rather take some temporarily trendy course on gangster films than something he knows little about, like Shakespeare, but whose worth and universal significance have been proven over centuries. But what parent forking over $30,000 a year to Georgetown wants the English major debased by such topical triflings? Where is the foundation–the “canon,” in academic terms–upon which a life of reading and reflection is erected?

According to the National Alumni Forum’s report, the trend not only is widespread, but dominant. Out of 70 of the nation’s top colleges and universities (including those listed in the annual report of U.S. News and World Report), “only 23 now require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. At Duke, Shakespeare yields to “Melodrama and Soap Opera,” at Oberlin “The Uses of Deviance.” Other schools offer English–yes, English–classes in sports, textile trade, theme parks, third world liberation struggles, mail-order brides, computer games, advertising imagery and world fairs. A high sounding course at Cornell on the “Languages of Community” really involves study of “innovative cultural texts such as alternative ‘zines, Nuyorican performance poetry, and Internet News groups.” (Note: “‘zines” means magazines and “Nuyorican” means New Yorker. Big deal.)

The Alumni Forum report comments on the strange “combination of low culture with high theory (in many courses), as if enough theoretical jargon made any subject worth study.” At Bowdoin College, “An Introduction to Literary Theory through Popular Culture” provides a “structuralist, deconstructive, feminist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, African-American, and lesbian and gay theory” on such matters as “best-selling novels, music videos, Hollywood films, and soap opera.”

Why? It cannot be that Shakespeare no longer is worthy of an audience or is irrelevant to our age. The audience is still there. There have never been so many new films of Shakespeare’s plays and adaptations of them. Imaginative new versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are just now opening, for example. Sneak Previews’ critic Michael Medved says that Shakespeare “is the hottest thing going in film right now.”

But Shakespeare may be irrelevant, indeed, to the careers of English professors who obtained degrees in the riotous 60’s. They seem unable to identify with an artist who was not at war with his times, whose genius it was to perfectly express the society of his period even while brilliantly transcending it. They prefer the post-modern sensibility that conceives of the artist’s job as confronting and shocking society, even though the confrontation is a pose and the shocks quickly wear thin. They regard the continuing high reputation of Shakespeare outside the university as the rueful Cassius did Caesar:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonorable graves.”

They also may believe that teaching of a long tradition in literature does nothing to enhance their own stature among their academic peers. You don’t attract attention by teaching Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton these days; you attract it by inventing new forms of literary criticism that only other colleagues read. Maybe that’s their idea of the business they are in. But, again, why would any parent want to pay for such self-dramatizing mediocrity? Do we really want to reward Professor Glutz for his marvelous insights into soap operas, or to teach Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Of course, knocking the bust of Shakespeare off its pedestal is only an indication of the tyranny of levelling in our culture. A whole range of great and tested authors, not just Shakespeare, endures the academy’s neglect. Forget for a moment the divisions of liberal and conservative, rich and poor. Some of the worst damage to our cohesion as a people now comes from supposed experts in education who denigrate lasting achievements and celebrate the notional. It is giving us two societies: a small, remnant strata that enjoys and benefits from the inspiration of our civilization’s long traditions, and the consumerist, throw-away culture that screams its adoration of pop idols before discarding them for something still newer. At peril is the Thomas Jefferson vision of a democratic culture that elevates all.

It is not new that a majority of citizens don’t know much of Shakespeare–or of the great figures of history, economics, philosophy or science. What is new is that university graduates–sometimes supposed specialists, as in English departments–don’t know about them either and, most importantly, are not expected to.

This latest news about falling academic standards in English, in particular, has serious implications for the next generation of teachers of high school, who can hardly introduce children to the glories of King Lear or Henry IV if they are barely acquainted with them themselves. It is a sad loss for our culture, where next to the Bible (which terrifies many colleges as well as common schools), Shakespeare is the well from which writers of all kinds have drawn deepest inspiration for four centuries–writers who shared their allusions with the whole reading public. It’s more bad news for newspapers, for the theater (especially the various Shakespeare festivals) and eventually even films.

It is terrible news for the regents and trustees of our colleges and universities. The National Alumni Forum makes it clear that most university English departments are so lost in political correctness and intellectual consumerism that they cannot be reformed from within. They will have to be rescued by the people who have ultimate legal responsibility, college and university trustees. Most trustees would rather duck the responsibility, but ethically they cannot.

If English departments will not stress the generally recognized best in English and American literature, Dr. Jerry Martin of the Alumni Forum says, it plainly is up to trustees to call together a distinguished national panel of professors to critique such departments for the trustees’ benefit and recommend changes (as the Forum itself did). But perhaps another panel also could give advice: Bring in the leading practitioners of good writing in our society, the men and women who have won fiction and non-fiction prizes, and the newspaper and magazine editors and book editors of greatest distinction. Ask them about these trends.

Conservatives who despair that the problem of lowering standards in the academy is a disease recognized only by themselves might be surprised by the broad support–left as well as right–the Shakespeare report has elicited out in the real world. Martin Peretz of the liberal New Republic magazine, for example, praised the Alumni Forum report, as did Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theater. Roger Shattuck, University Professor, Boston University, stated, “The (current) situation constitutes a breech of contract. In fact, parents should sue for breech of contract.”

Some English department chairs probably will assert that their preferences merely reflect new scholarly understandings, perhaps accessible only to academics; and under their breath they will rail against efforts to resurrect “dead white males” like Shakespeare.

Let them read Maya Angelou, the African American poet who appeared at President Clinton’s first inaugural. Chided for reading Shakespeare as a youth, Angelou recounts (in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), “…(Y)ears later, when I physically and psychologically left that country, that condition, which is Stamps Arkansas…I found myself and still find myself, whenever I like, stepping back into Shakespeare. Whenever I like I pull him to me. He wrote it for me.

“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.

With what I most enjoy contented least…’

“Of course he wrote it for me,” Angelou continues; “that is the condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it; but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman. That is the role of art.”

Maya Angelou understands. The National Alumni Forum understands. What is it that keeps over half of the English departments in America’s higher educational institutions from understanding?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.