Phi Beta Cons

A Return to Normalcy

G. K. Chesterton wrote that oddities usually fail to strike odd people. “This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.”
Two pieces related to that this morning. The first comes from Anne Neal, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times. Anne as you know is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which has just released its crucial Vanishing Shakespeare report, which shows that the man who founded a goodly portion of what we know today as the English language is hardly even studied anymore. In the Sun-Times, Anne writes:

The world loves Shakespeare. But American universities don’t.

That is the conclusion of a new study released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The report, “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” surveyed English curricula at 70 major American colleges and universities. Only 15 require their English majors to take a course on Shakespeare. The rest allow the English teachers of tomorrow to graduate without studying the language’s greatest writer in depth.
Only one institution requires Shakespeare in the Ivy League — Harvard. And a mere three others of U.S. News’ top 25 liberal arts colleges — Middlebury, Smith and Wellesley — require the study of the Bard.
At most of America’s top colleges, Shakespeare is simply an elective — one among many. That puts him on a par with literature courses on “Nags, Bitches and Shrews” at Dartmouth; Los Angeles, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Baywatch at Northwestern; baseball at Emory, and “Cool Theory,” at Duke, where students devote themselves to the study of a single word of American slang.

The second piece comes Julian Gough, writing in Britain’s Prospect magazine. Julian takes issue with the superseriousness of today’s novels–which are mostly quite bad, she adds–and urges a return to comedy. (“The gods’ view of life.”) Novels today are too odd, too extreme, too much about wildness, and so they have become nothing but dull. “[W]estern culture since the middle ages,” she writes, “has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor.”

But we are wrong to think that way. What we’ve lost is the notion that within the ambit of ordinary life there is endless humor and loveliness. Once one strays outside of those bounds, one absurdity can be no more shocking than the next. It’s no coincidence that Mozart’s greatest opera and Shakespeare’s finest play are both comedies.

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