Are Colleges Coming To Praise Shakespeare, Or to Bury Him?

More institutions let English majors bypass the Bard, arguing for greater diversity

For literature lovers, it's "the most unkindest cut of all": It seems there could come a time when many American English majors won't know who wrote those words.

While schools across the US have been touting stricter standards and a return to the basics, some say university course lists are telling a different story, and nowhere more so than in the English department.

A recent study has renewed debate about the perceived shift away from traditional core subjects, like Shakespeare, to newer and more diverse courses. Critics are charging that English professors are "dumbing down" their departments and ultimately, the quality of American students. Others say the debate isn't so simple: that fields of study are expanding, not narrowing, and that academic disciplines, like society, evolve.

"I'd suspect many [English] departments are divided," says Kathy Eden, chair of the literature, humanities program at New York's Columbia University.

The latest round of controversy was sparked by the Washington-based National Alumni Forum, which recently canvassed 70 of the nation's top colleges and universities to determine whether they are dropping Shakespeare and other great authors, and if so, what new courses were taking their place.

The results, forum president Jerry Martin says, were "extraordinary." Of the 70 universities, only 23 required English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.

The study charged that some schools are granting English degrees to students who may never have read a Shakespeare sonnet or play - a situation it likened to fraud.

Discarding the Bard, it concluded, is "not merely a trend; it is now the norm." The ramifications the forum foresees go beyond the job market to potentially threaten America's "leadership in the world. Or even its unity as a nation."

The catalyst for the study was a decision made in the spring of 1996 by Washington-based Georgetown University to drop its "great author" requirement - two courses on Milton, Shakespeare, or Chaucer.

The study pilloried the school for freeing its English majors from the "burdens of the great writers, allowing more opportunity to study 'Hardboiled Detective Fiction.' "

"It makes for an interesting sound bite," observes Sandra Hvidstem, communications director at Georgetown, "but there's very little fact there."

She points out that the school's restructured English program actually offers students more opportunity to take Shakespeare courses, the number of which has steadily increased since 1977.

The changes at Georgetown, Ms. Hvidstem argues, are nothing out of the ordinary. "Academic disciplines ... naturally evolve," she says. "There was a time when no student could receive a baccalaureate degree without studying Latin and Greek - when Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson were not thought worthy of study."

What's happening, many academics say, is a balancing of the old with the new. At Columbia University, all undergraduates take two core courses covering great thinkers and great writers. The general consensus there, says Professor Eden, is that these courses don't need changing, just complementing with other offerings.

Boston University's English majors take two traditional core courses that cover literary analysis and great works. But still, "the canon is expanding in ways we think it should, to include fine writing that hasn't always been included," says associate dean Susan Jackson, offering Toni Morrison as an example.

But Mr. Martin of the National Alumni Forum argues that much that's being included isn't worthy of study. "At many universities," the study contends, "new English courses focus less on great literature than on works selected precisely because they are not great."

The study cites "Gay Fiction," "Black Women in the United States," and a Renaissance literature course that focuses on women, law, and drama, among others.

"A student doesn't become a literature major to take prison literature," says Martin, who says these changes are being driven by the social-political agenda of highly politicized faculty.

Critics say the same description could apply to the National Alumni Forum. An article in the January 1996 journal LinguaFranca points out that although the group's stated mission is to empower alumni to effect changes on campuses, it operates with a distinctly conservative agenda - and is bankrolled by groups well known for backing right-wing causes.

In all the debate, one voice is seldom heard. "Some credit should be given to students," says Kevin Skaggs, who holds an English degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Breadth and diversity should be available, but I think most students know we don't just live in the moment, we live in history. The canon's not sacred, Shakespeare's not God, but that historical perspective should be there."

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