Shakespeare: The Ultimate Dead White Male?

In my first public lecture at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2013, perhaps no passage excited a more furious response from some members of the audience than this:

It turns out that at a shockingly high number of universities—though not this one—it is possible to take a degree in English without having to take a single course on Shakespeare, which strikes me as absurd as taking a course in radical philosophy that omitted reading Karl Marx.  On the other hand, if you have a close look at the political science departments around the country that lean conservative or have a strong conservative plurality in the department—these would be Boston College; Notre Dame; Chicago; Georgetown; Loyola; Claremont; University of Dallas; University of Virginia; Kenyon; St. Johns Annapolis; Ashland, Hillsdale; maybe a handful of others—you will typically find in the political science course offerings one or more courses on—Shakespeare. In this contrast I think you can really begin to grasp the very different educational philosophies dividing left and right.  While many English departments now regard Shakespeare as optional material because he’s old, or because he represents the “white Anglo-Saxon phallo-logocentric hegemonic discourse” that needs to be swept away, conservatives think you can find wisdom of permanent value in reading the works of the great dramatist.  Actually conservatives argue vigorously among themselves about how Shakespeare’s politics should be understood: was he the last Aristotelian philosopher, contesting against Machiavelli, or was he in fact simply a more genteel version of Machiavelli?

Well, one graduate student in English was gravely offended (even though I noted specifically that Boulder was not among the colleges ditching the bard), but I couldn’t really make out her objection she was shaking so hard in her anger.

All of this is preface to the latest report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) on “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015.”  From the summary:

At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare closely as an indispensable foundation for the understanding of English language and literature. But today—at the elite institutions we examined, public and private, large and small, east and west—he is required no more.

The basic finding is unambiguous. Not even one out of ten of the institutions ACTA surveyed required English majors to take a single course devoted to Shakespeare. And as the schools relax requirements relating to Shakespeare and other great authors, courses that have more to do with popular culture and contemporary issues are multiplying. . .

At most colleges and universities, Shakespeare courses can be taken as options within the major, as described in Appendix A. And yet, as a quick glance at existing requirements shows, Shakespeare holds no favored place. A course called “Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance from Chaucer to Tarantino” at the University of Pennsylvania counts the same as a Shakespeare course toward the “Early Literature to 1660” requirement. The catalog description: “… readable, often salacious, and certainly never dull, these ‘pulp fictions’ reveal complex worlds beneath their seemingly simple or gritty exteriors” suggests an interesting course, but it is no substitute for the seminal study of Shakespeare.  So also for “Gender, Sexuality and Literature: Our Cyborgs, Our Selves” that fulfilled Penn’s “Early Literature to 1660” requirement in Fall 2014. At Swarthmore and Bowdoin, “Renaissance Sexualities” can substitute for Shakespeare to fulfill the “Pre-1800” requirement. At Cornell, where undergraduate English majors need to take three pre-1800 courses, Spring 2015 choices include “Love and Ecstasy: Forms of Devotion in Medieval English Literature,” which addresses the question, “What do love, torture, and ecstasy all have in common?” The previous year, “Art of the Insult” fulfilled the same requirement, as did “Blood Politics,” whose course description begins, “Blood is everywhere. From vampire shows to video games, our culture seems to be obsessed with it.”

And The Daily Telegraph has a nice writeup, too.

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