4.5.07

THE SHAPE OF THE UNIVERSITY TO COME. The presence, or absence, of Shakespeare in the curriculum comes to the attention of the fourth estate.

"I can't imagine the study of Shakespeare has diminished in any way," says Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, a Manhattan-based humanities organization. "I look at curricula all the time, and I know that English majors are reading Shakespeare. I have absolutely no doubt about that."

"You have a real paradox here," says Tom McBride, who has taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years at Beloit College, where the subject is not required.

"On the one hand, Shakespeare is bigger than ever. You have movies based on Shakespeare's plays. He is a huge, huge factor in our culture. On the other hand, you can go to Barnes & Noble and buy books called 'Shakespeare Made Easy.' They are like modern editions of the Bible that turn everything into American, easy-to-understand English."

So the executive director of what the press calls a "humanities organization" (why is it the Cato Institute is "libertarian" and the Heritage Foundation "conservative" but the Modern Language Association not "radical?") says there's nothing to worry about (this from an organization whose job market is a paradigm of frustration) while a State Line academic is in so many words noting that most people teach themselves Shakespeare. I suppose self-taught game theorists and signal engineers might manage tolerably well, but there's still an advantage in getting some guidance.

Readers of the main press have the opportunity to discover what we have understood all along.

The debate over Shakespeare goes to the heart of a much larger struggle for identity and mission at colleges and universities.

On one side are those who believe that institutions have so fully embraced pop culture, diversity and social/political issues of every flavor that they are watering down what's truly important and failing to stress the classics. On the other side stand those who believe universities must broaden their offerings to remain relevant, and that such efforts pose no threat to the Big Three: Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton.

"I really do think we're at a crossroads in academia and we're having a tough time making the call," says [John] Curran, of Marquette. "We want to be welcoming to new areas, but we do want to be held accountable and produce English majors who are really English majors."

Not to do so is to fail to teach, according to some of the interviewees.

UW-Madison associate professor Henry S. Turner has taught Shakespeare since 2000 and says there is a simple reason why the author is a requirement for English majors.

"Every discipline needs some fundamentals," he says. "Shakespeare is fundamental. A lot of people would rightly say that he is the most influential writer in English."

That is the very reason Marquette English major Stephen McDonald supports his school's Shakespeare requirement. Many of the great writers who came to prominence after Shakespeare's death in 1616 have referred to his plays in their own work.

"In order to understand them," says McDonald, "one should look at the original."

Per corollary, a survey of economics ought give students a chance to read Smith and Marx and Marshall and Mises and a pinch of Veblen and Keynes.

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