The Bard holds up through centuries Studies: Course offerings on Shakespeare remain numerous, despite changing collegiate requirements, and the percentage of undergraduates choosing to take them has remained stable for 20 years.


April 03, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Alas, poor Shakespeare, we knew him well.

That was the baleful cry from conservative critics as they watched the Bard disappear from required reading lists across the United States, part of a wave of revisionism as colleges embraced multiculturalism.

Two-thirds of the nation's top 70 universities no longer insist that English majors take a Shakespeare course, according to one recent study. Still more schools are considering whether to follow suit. To traditionalits, this is political correctness run amok, an academic mistake that challenges the cultural legacy of the greatest author in the English language.

But students may be smarter than the policy setters.

Shakespeare is not only surviving, but thriving on college campuses. Elective classes devoted to the Bard are full. More scholastic anthologies and critical studies are being written than ever before.

"Samuel Johnson said in 1765 that people read Shakespeare because they want to, not because they have to," says Gary Taylor, a nationally known Shakespeare scholar at the University of Alabama. "That's his measure of the greatness of Shakespeare."

The playwright's resilience has shed fresh light on the debate over what should be taught in American colleges, particularly as the effects of campus squabbles over curriculum begin to emerge across the country.

Some academicians say the trend toward more inclusive studies has scored a victory and proved conservatives' fears of a dumbing down of America to be unfounded. Great thinkers, writers and artists, they say, will withstand time and curriculum changes just fine.

"The major Western figures are still there and still getting the largest enrollments," says Susan Lewis, director of Harvard's core curriculum, the slate of general education offerings the school revised in 1979. "Students are going for the things that critics think of as very traditional and in danger of falling off the map."

In art courses, undergraduates still flock to Michelangelo. In music, Beethoven. In philosophy, Plato. And in literature, Shakespeare.

But critics remain unmoved. Popularity is not the point, they say, but rather priority and principle. Making Shakespeare optional for English majors strikes some as knavery.

"Would you accept the answer that in medical school, we don't require anatomy because we expect most students to take it anyway?" asks Jerry L. Martin, president of the National Alumni Forum, a conservative Washington educational think tank. "You're defining what an M.D. is when you make your requirements, and you're defining what an English major is when you make your requirements."

To use Shakespeare as a case study in the debate over college liberal arts is tricky. No other author can compare when it comes to influence on English letters and society or the ability to transcend time.

To some, however, that is precisely the point: Shakespeare continues to endure even when the door to the traditional canon and Western education opens wider to admit others who have gone ignored or neglected for years.

"As a good writer, he should be able to survive in a free market," says Alabama's Taylor, who voted to abandon a Shakespeare requirement for English majors while at Brandeis University several years ago. "Conservatives in every other respect are demanding that we let the market decide, that we not regulate the choices that people make. Yet when it comes to culture, there is this tendency to insist that we force people to read what we think will be good for them."

Critics disagree, contending that Shakespeare's patrimony is too important to be left to the laws of supply and demand.

In December, Martin's organization, which is headed by Lynne Cheney, the former chief of the National Endowment for the Humanities, published a report that showed two-thirds of America's 70 top colleges do not require English students to study Shakespeare.

"What is taking Shakespeare's place?" the report asked. As answers, it cited classes on advertising imagery, Madonna lyrics, Internet 'zines and "Queer Fiction" the title of a course at Amherst College.

"This country cannot expect a generation raised on gangster films and sex studies to maintain its leadership in the world. Or even its unity as a nation," wrote Martin.

The report was spawned by a dispute at Georgetown University, where the English faculty last spring scrapped a requirement that majors study at least two of the language's three giants - Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare. Instead, starting with the class of 1999, students will choose one of three sub-specialties, including "literature and literary history," "culture and performance" and "writing." None will require a course dedicated to Shakespeare.

The Georgetown English department, criticized by students, scholars and even local actors, countered that Shakespeare still has a high profile on campus.

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