An English Major Without the Sonnet

Last spring Georgetown University found itself embroiled in controversy when its English department dropped a "Great Authors" requirement for majors. The Great Authors - at Georgetown and, indeed, at most institutions of higher learning - were usually considered to be Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. Requirements were designed to ensure that English majors read deeply in one or more of these authors. Georgetown required students to take two.

But no longer. Now, beginning with the class of 1999, students will be obliged to read none of these authors. Instead, they will be free to choose among a wide array of election courses such as "Prison Literature" or "History and Theory of Sexuality."

When many in the Washington area raised howls of protest, Georgetown responded by claiming that its English professors were simply following a national trend. That defense is true enough - as a study recently released by the National Alumni Forum points out - but this will be cold comfort to those who rightly feel that English majors sans Shakespeare are at the very least suspect goods.

As a professor of English I have followed the arguments on behalf of "opening up the canon" with a sinking heart, not because I believe that what our students ought to read is etched in granite, but because the brief against Great Authors is often packed with politics and driven by self-indulgence. The issue is no longer what our students need in order to be well-educated English majors, but, rather, what an individual professor would most like to explore. The result is that of the 70 institutions surveyed, only 23 require a course on Shakespeare, and many do not even require a survey course that might include a sonnet or two.

The rub, of course, is that one cannot add the new and trendy without also subtracting the old and reliable. Put another way, if English majors no longer need worry about King Lear or Hamlet, what characters and issues do they confront?

The answer, at one institution after another, seems to be "cultural studies," a recent phenomenon that has little to do with culture and considerably less to do with "study." At Bowdoin College, for example, courses such as "An Introduction to Literary Theory Through Popular Culture" will presumably open up whole new vistas by showing students how "structuralist, deconstructive, feminist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, African-American, and lesbian and gay theory" might be ingeniously applied to "best-selling novels, music videos, Hollywood films, and soap operas."

What they won't encounter, however, is a single classic, much less sustained exposure to the most important writer in the English language: Shakespeare. Worse yet, if these students decide to major in English, the situation will simply continue, with emphases on "the literature produced by and for craftsmen and laborers" (this at UC-Santa Barbara) or courses on medieval and Renaissance literature so fixated on social conditions, sexual topics, and nonliterary documents that poems or plays play very little part in the arithmetic.

For better or worse, students are surrounded by popular culture. As these students grow older, however, Madonna will no longer matter, while "Measure for Measure" or "A Midsummer's Night Dream" will - or at least should. This is true for undergraduates regardless of their major. At one time this is precisely what the term "liberal education" meant. Now even English majors can crow about what they've learned without a single reference to Shakespeare. Parents shelling out $100,000 for their child's miseducation need to pay close attention to the facts the National Alumni Forum has collected. And if Johnny or Susie happens to be majoring in English, they need to pick up the phone, dial the folks in charge, and ask some tough questions.

Sanford Pinsker, Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., is editor of the quarterly Academic Questions.

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