‘There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America, recalling his travels across the country in the early 19th century and suggesting the scope of the Bard’s influence. From the log cabins of our young republic to the classrooms of contemporary China, where he is known as Shashibiya, Shakespeare has been arguably the most read writer in the English language. He is also certainly the most translated. His work has been rendered in Zulu, Mandarin, even Klingon.
Why, then, is he vanishing from the curricula of America’s colleges?
A new study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reveals, depressingly, that only four of the nation’s top colleges and universities require a Shakespeare course, even for English majors. ACTA, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that encourages college trustees to act on behalf of academic freedom and excellence, surveyed U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 national universities and top 25 liberal-arts colleges. Of the former, only Harvard (the lone Ivy League institution to make the cut) and the University of California–Los Angeles require English majors to study Shakespeare. Of the latter, only Wellesley College and the United States Naval Academy do.
What today’s English departments do offer is the expected cocktail of popular culture and political correctness. Princeton’s “Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet,” for example. Or “Punk Culture: The Aesthetics and Politics of Refusal” at Cornell, or “The Politics of Hip Hop” at Emory.
Though this be madness, there is of course a method to it, to paraphrase Polonius. Part of the motivation is economic, as departments pander to their customers with courses on children’s literature, cinema, television, Harry Potter, and vampires. Another part is political, involving academia’s devaluing of Western classics and its hostility to anything white, male, or old, adjectives that supposedly mean irrelevant and ethnocentric.
This is nonsense. Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, with their themes of romance, intrigue, and tragedy, touch all aspects of the human condition and transcend the age and the culture in which he wrote. For over four centuries his work has resonated with people from vastly diverse backgrounds and stations of life.
For just one illustration of this universality, consider that last year, on the occasion of the Bard’s 450th birthday, the London-based Globe to Globe project launched an effort to perform Hamlet in every country on earth. Performances have been staged or scheduled in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Russia, Kenya, and Uganda, to name just a few. This gives some indication that the tragedian’s work still strikes common chords and moves the hearts of men and women regardless of race or class. Or, as the late Maya Angelou said, succinctly, “Shakespeare was a black girl.”
Many English majors will emerge from our most prestigious institutions of higher learning without ever setting their eyes on King Lear, Othello, or The Tempest. They will, however, have completed such courses as Penn’s “Gender, Sexuality, and Literature: Our Cyborgs, Our Selves.” Some consolation. Shakespeare has stood the test of time. It’s open to debate whether such modern fads as neuro-lit will have the same staying power. And pity the high-schoolers who will end up as the pupils of a generation of English teachers who never studied Shakespeare.
ACTA suggests that concerned university alumni and donors raise their voices against such curriculum oversights and, in protest, withhold their charitable giving. This is a good starting point, but perhaps we as a culture should remind ourselves that literature by authors who are “dead,“ “white,” “male,” and “Western” can certainly share space with more modern fields of study. If the academy and popular culture continue to insist on this fatuous association, many great ideas and beautiful works of art — from Michelangelo to Shakespeare to the Founding Fathers — will be closed off to rising generations of all backgrounds,.
In the fourth act of Henry VI, Part 2, Lord Saye observes that “ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” For nearly half a millennium, Shakespeare has been such a wing. Our colleges and universities should do their part to keep it that way.