The Washington Post highlights a new study from the American Coucil of Trustees and Alumni on the absence of a Shakespeare requirement from the English Major at numerous top colleges.  Of 52 top national universities and liberal arts colleges reviewed, only 4 — including Harvard, but not Williams — required English majors to study Shakespeare as a requirement of completing the major.

Chairs of the English departments at Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and Yale were given space to respond. Prof. John Limon noted that he personally recommends to his advisees that they take at least one Shakespeare class, and emphasized the breadth of Williams’s offerings and requirements.

 we do have more courses devoted to Shakespeare than any other single author — usually four a year. In addition, we have a literary history requirement of one course before 1800 and another course before 1900…

And there are students who can make good use of the English major for all sorts of purposes, which lead them in many directions but not to a course in Shakespeare [e.g., techniques of cultural analysis]… That may be bad in several ways, but it does not invalidate that use if the major.

Compare the response by Geoffrey Sanborn,  Amherst’s English chair:

Sanborn said it’s important to remember that English is about more than its canon… we conceive of literature as a basic form of expression that’s taken as wild variety of forms, in a range of cultures and across time… We’re trying to create lifelong, engaged, animated readers … [and we] trust students to be adult enough to choose, with help from their advisers, a path through the college.”

57% of the 266 Amherst English grads have taken a Shakespeare course. I wonder what the comparable number, not provided, is for Williams.

Although both chairs raise the “bit we have advisers to steer them” trope, I favor Prof. Limon’s response, which seems more engaged with what makes an English major distinctive in a liberal arts curriculum.  And the authors of the study — who undoubtedly place a high value on the literary canon, are highlighting a very crude statistic. After all, if a student can satisfy a Shakespeare requirement with some course like “Reimagining Shakespeare as a Crypto-Anarchist,” or some such thing, does it really mater that it’s a requirement?

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