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A Dissent on the Shakespeare Report

In this post I made reference to the Vanishing Shakespeare report—on the declining frequency of Shakespeare study in American colleges—from the fine American Council of Trustees and Alumni. English professor Daniel Green e-mails in to gainsay some of the report’s conclusions:

As a professor, I was intrigued by your comments about the “Vanishing Shakespeare” report. You wrote that “the man who founded a goodly portion of what we know today as the English language is hardly even studied anymore.” I don’t know if you’ve read the report thoroughly, but it doesn’t support that conclusion. It doesn’t even properly support its own conclusion that Shakespeare isn’t studied in depth.

The ACTA report classified a school as requiring Shakespeare if “a majority of its English majors were obliged either to take a course in Shakespeare or to take two out of three single-author courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton” (p. 4). That’s it—those are the only courses that count. Survey courses are probably more common (especially in small departments), but the authors excluded them, claiming that they “do not guarantee that [they] will include Shakespeare or will provide exposure of any significant depth.”

Here’s the problem with that approach. Let’s say a particular university requires a survey course, but not a single-author course on Shakespeare. Maybe the authors are right—maybe the survey course doesn’t require a study of the Bard in any depth. But what if it does? Consider the required course I took as an undergraduate. It was taught by a Shakespeare scholar, and (as best I can recall) its title was something like “The Elizabethan Era.” We studied not only Shakespeare, but also Marlowe and Jonson and the sources from which they drew. We compared the playwrights’ approaches, studied the language, and learned about the intricate twists and touches that Shakespeare added to each of his plays. Yet this course, as far as I can tell, would not be counted, and my school would be condemned in grim and sonorous tones as one of those benighted universities that allows students to graduate “without studying the language’s greatest writer in depth” (p. 4).

They could have tried to solve this problem. They could have looked into the course descriptions or the syllabi of the survey courses. They could have grouped schools into three categories—those that required a single-author course, those that required a survey course covering the relevant period, and those that had no requirement at all. Yet they did not bother to make such an effort. They pretended they knew the truth, but they did not.

My old professor would have had some choice words for Neal and her colleagues. “She speaks, yet she says nothing,” perhaps. Or, if he was in one of his moods, “Heaven truly knows that [they] art false as hell.”

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