Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Shakespeare and English Studies

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni , of which Lynn Cheney is the Chairman Emeritus, has recently published a survey of select colleges and universities to draw attention to the absence of Shakespeare in the curriculum of English undergraduate majors. This council laments the decrease in university standards, particularly the movement away from what the council refers to as “a body of important writers, genres, and works that all should know,” making it possible for someone to graduate with a BA in English “without thoughtful or extended study of central works and figures who have shaped our literary and cultural heritage.” The council also expresses surprise and dismay at the kind of courses currently offered in English departments, such as children’s literature, film, theory, and “an array of courses that center on politics, sociology, and popular culture” but not literature.

Although I didn’t attend a university that the US News and World Reports ranks as one of the best, which is the criterion that the council uses in its survey of colleges and universities, I graduated without having had a course in Shakespeare. The English department at Wichita State in the late 1970’s offered three options for a BA, creative writing, English Language and Literature, and English education. The English education degree required Shakespeare because it was necessary for a Kansas teaching certificate in secondary education. Majors in English education, on the other hand, only had to earn 24 credit hours in English whereas majors in English Language and Literature had to earn 30 credit hours. I opted for the more demanding major in English Language and Literature because I didn’t see myself teaching at that time.

In choosing to study English, I wanted to gain what T.S. Eliot refers to as a historical sense. My program largely emphasized poetry, beginning with John Skelton and Sir Thomas Wyatt. When I realized that I would be graduating without having studied 17th and 18th century poetry, I arranged to work independently with a professor who assisted in my reading of John Donne, John Milton (including Paradise Lost), and Alexander Pope. There were still deficiencies in my education because I didn’t complete the course that I started in 20th century American literature; the professor chose to emphasize African-American novels instead of the Harlem Renaissance and modern poets like Robert Frost and Robert Lowell.

A course in Renaissance literature placed greater emphasis on poetry instead of drama, so we read Shakespeare’s sonnets and his two longer poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” but not his plays. Drama hasn’t been my specialty, and I personally haven’t seen the reason or had the desire to study drama. I largely designed and completed my own program of study in college while still completing the requirements for a degree, eventually adding a capstone of sorts to my education by visiting Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St. Giles. While I was attending a high school for military dependents in England, we made a trip during the senior year to Stratford upon Avon, where we saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage and a performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor. Giving Shakespeare more of my attention wasn’t an interest of mine.

I cannot recommend my course of study for everyone. Each institution should offer options in the study of English. Wichita State, I learned recently, has toughened its degree program in English education and still requires a course in Shakespeare for secondary certification. Maybe those colleges and universities surveyed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni aren't representative of English studies in this country.