A Course, A Course, My Kingdom for a Course!
This April 12, 2016 photos shows a bust of William Shakespeare which sits above the famous British playwright's grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's fame continues to take Stratford-upon-Avon to new heights. (AP Photo/James Brooks)
This cold month of April 2016 has even greater resonance when compounded by the cold shoulder William Shakespeare is receiving as his 400th birthday present April 23.
While the Bard’s literary status remains iconic as ever worldwide, there is a chilling winter of discontent at nearly every top college in the United States. At schools often name-dropped as educational status symbols, ironically, the Bard is not just a former status symbol. He’s been dropped quite literally. This is in part why Americans are less competitive academically.
More peculiar still is that the top schools are snubbing Shakespeare studies at the precise time that his influence is embedded solidly almost everywhere else across the globe.
Two Kurosawa films—in Japanese!—retell his tragedies. He moved rock bands that include Rush and Led Zeppelin to pay homage to him in their lyrics. Breaking Bad owes as much of its gripping drama to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as it does to the tale of a teacher cooking meth. And kids are never too young to appreciate a Shakespeare-for-little-learners–themed book, given that it was the Bard who first introduced the phrase now the set-up for a whole genre of youthful humor as punny as you like it with the simple phrase, “Knock knock. Who’s there?”
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015” a year ago this month which documented the extent to which the Bard has been barred from the priority list for English majors—both at the top 25 U.S. colleges and universities and at the top 25 U.S. colleges and universities for liberal arts, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. A scant 8 percent of the top institutions nationally require a dedicated Shakespeare course for English majors. Some of these Shakespeare-impaired English majors will eventually teach high school English, and no one seems to care that they will be doing so undereducated and underprepared.
Harvard and UC–Berkeley were the only two among the top 25 schools overall to require Shakespeare for English majors; Wellesley and the U.S. Naval Academy, the only two among the top 25 liberal arts schools. Readers are welcome to see the scope of the crisis affecting the U.S college core curriculum by reading the full ACTA study, which also includes, quite descriptively, what it is that the other elite programs find of equal or greater value than the study of Shakespeare. Pruriently fascinating stuff, perhaps, but more edifying than Shakespeare? Only to those who find ignorance to be bliss because emptying their heads of stressful thoughts was never too far a distance from start to finish to begin with.
“The Bard’s legacy is still strongly felt around the world, with his influence upon the English language showing little sign of relenting,” the Independent reported April 8. “Even those who never want to hear his name again after studying the tragedies at school must accept that Shakespeare is everywhere. His plays are still widely considered the pinnacle and his mastery of words continues to impress and inspire.”
Unless, that is, if you go to a pricey school stateside with a reputation for academic excellence, where you’ll find Shakespeare is nowhere.
Shakespeare courses are as critical to the curriculum of English majors as physics courses are to mechanical engineers. Imagine an engineer earning a degree lacking fundamentals to the extent that, after watching the presidential debates, he may conclude that it is possible to repeal the laws of physics.
Were he with us today, methinks the final lament of the tragic figure for which “Richard III” is named would not be a plaintive cry for anything equine. It would not be, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Perhaps instead Richard III would shake his fist toward the college administrators, wailing at places such as Cornell, Columbia, Williams, and the rest of the nation’s top universities, begging for something with enduring substance: “A course! A course! My kingdom for a course!”