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>Getting the Shakes

>Child_Lit is currently enjoying one of those pearl-clutching reports about the abysmal state of American education, this one taking on colleges that do not require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare but allow them to study such horrors as queer theory and children’s literature.

Let’s start with the sheer–and shrill–irrationality of comparing required courses to elective ones. The report doesn’t claim that Shakespeare isn’t being taught, only that courses devoted to him are elective, signalling a dumbing-down in English education that has occurred since . . . well, since when, exactly? The report states but provides no evidence that required classes in Shakespeare used to be the order of the day. It also specifically excludes from the discussion courses that include Shakespeare among others, so a course devoted to English writing of the Elizabethan era, for example, does not count.

The attack on children’s literature, critical theory, etc. is completely predictable: it’s the same card the Music Man played when warning the good people of River City of the dangers of “Captain Billy’s Whiz-bang Book.” But even old-school English majors inclined to go along with the sympathies of the report must be embarrassed that nowhere does it ever say why English majors need a mandatory course called Shakespeare. It wants us to take his authority on their word. That’s education?

What the report is really trying to do is to use “Shakespeare” as a word to bully people. The report knows that most people pay Shakespeare the same lip service they do to Mozart, PBS, art museums and public libraries: people know they are supposed to consider these things “cultural” and important even if in real life they wouldn’t be caught dead actually giving these institutions any genuine attention. The report isn’t worried that Shakespeare isn’t been taught (it concedes that he is), just that students aren’t being forced to read him. What the American Council of Trustees and Alumni really wants is that students be taught obedience and unquestioning respect for authority. It wants people to do as they’re told.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Anonymous says:

    >I vote for a required course in which queer theory is used for reading Shakespeare. I (and others) are already using it with children’s lit.

    Rebecca Rabinowitz

  3. >In an English department meeting during which we voted to add YA lit to the requirements for students seeking teacher certification (something that only passed because we were told that NCATE, the major accrediting body for English Ed., would make us add it if we didn’t do it ourselves), one of my colleagues asserted that “It’s not Shakespeare.” I spent the next few minutes imagining an all-Shakespeare curriculum. Without the queer theory angle, I’m not sure we could come up with enough classes.

  4. >What got my goat was that at my university, you could study Shakespeare but not Dante or Homer. I considered that a cold-blooded crime. Though my Medieval Lit professor was nice enough to include a unit on Dante in the syllabus just for me.

    A queer theory class regarding Dante would probably not turn out so well.

  5. >I opted for SS in college but I guess you can’t expect everyone to do it.

    BlueRectangle Books

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Pearl-clutching indeed! Someone has really gotten their Brooks Brothers boxers in a twist! I agree that “Shakespeare” (to borrow the report’s repetitive, snide use of quotation marks) is being held up here to represent a whole nexus of conservative ideals, which the report’s authors seem to feel need to be defended against a rising tide of diversity, inquiry, and inclusion (God forbid). I love the reference to viewing literature through the lens of gender and sexuality as “sensationalized content.” (Makes you wonder if these folks have actually read Shakespeare, the master of the bawdy double entendre.) Funny what people choose to get worked up over.

    And speaking of getting worked up over things, it was interesting to look back at the Edward Tulane discussion. I was struck that once Anonymous #1 said that he or she found the WRITING egotistical, there was something worth talking about.

    Thanks for the discussions, Roger.


  7. >Isn’t it possible that the report doesn’t include a rationale for mandatory Shakespeare classes because they’re just assuming that their target audience already understands why Shakespeare is crucial to a liberal arts education? (Much as, I assume, you consider public libraries crucial, a belief you probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain to the readership of this blog?) Why has the assertion of a canon of foundational works (Shakespeare, Plato, etc ad nauseum) somehow become an inherently authoritarian, nefarious concept somehow synonymous with teaching “obedience and unquestioning respect for authority”?

    It seems to me like you’re using “Shakespeare” as “a word to bully people” just as much as they are–since in your case, you’re using it as a stand-in for backward-looking, book-burning conservatives who only respect the achievements of old white men. That seems to me just as unfair to the “old-school English majors” as any of the many unwarranted insults to things like queer studies.

    Foucault and Derrida and all the other parents of post-modernism and post-post-modernism all started with the basics, building their cities on solid foundations. Don’t their disciples deserve the same opportunity?

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >RW, I think the problem is that the report is using “Shakespeare” in no context at all, canonical or otherwise. Not only does it not explain why Shakespeare needs to be required reading, it doesn’t tell us with what frequency Shakespeare is being taught. In its neatly-designed charts of comparative information, surely there would have been room to state whether or not each college offered a course in Shakespeare, perhaps even how many or how often.

    I’m contending that the survey did not seek to identify such classes because to do so would water down its already leaky point. To discount courses that only “include” Shakespeare does the same thing. To ignore the roles that faculty advising and student choice play is just dishonest: would it have been too much work to identify what percentage of B.A.s in English go to students who have (or have not) taken a class in Shakespeare?

    The questions the report pretends to raise (and the questions you actually do) are good ones–I’d be very interested to see an analysis of real data about who studies Shakespeare–but it’s instead a model of research driven by the results you want to get. Do I think English majors need to know Shakespeare? Yes. Do I think this report proves they don’t? Nope.

  9. >I’m with RW. And will add that HM’s equating Shakespeare with Brooks Brothers is a total red herring.

  10. >It’s really too bad that Shakespeare isn’t required viewing. That’s the way it makes the most sense, and maybe then more people would read it, required or not.

  11. >It’s interesting that the report isn’t just about neglecting Shakespeare–it says the universities and colleges listed don’t require a course in either Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer. What those three authors have in common is they’re very challenging to modern readers. Maybe what they’re getting at is that the curriculum is becoming increasingly easy, not just that Shakespeare is being dropped.

    Roger, is there any one YA author or book that you feel one MUST read in a YA course if that’s the only one they’re taking? Cormier, maybe?

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think the report is tacitly saying that the curriculum is lazy, but its methodology is equally so, because they make no case for the Shakespeare requirement being evidence of anything. It’s just an easy hook. Had the report researched, for example, the number of English majors taking a Shakespeare class, and found it wanting, we might have something. But that would force the ACTA to shift some blame onto the students, which would defeat what I think is its real agenda of instilling hostility toward institutions and faculty who don’t toe a conservative line.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >Over on the Reading Class comments, Elaine Magliaro wrote “A close friend of mine is an English Language Arts curriculum director in a school system in Massachusetts. She is discouraged that so many prospective high school English teachers she interviews have never had a college course in Shakespeare. How can they be expected to teach about Shakespeare if they’ve never read any of his works?”

    The report brings up this problem specifically, but I don’t think you can assume that every English major becomes a high school teacher. Most don’t (I’m guessing). I don’t think it’s been true for a long time (if ever) that you can assume either that an English major has taken a Shakespeare course, but isn’t that why colleges provide transcripts to potential employers? I know that I had to demonstrate coursework in children’s literature for my library jobs.

  14. Elaine Magliaro says:


    I’m not talking about all English majors–I am talking about those who are applying for jobs as high school English teachers.

    On another topic: Here is something else that concerns me regarding the education of prospective elementary and middle school teachers. I believe there are many teacher education programs that do not require that students take a course in children’s literature. I believe there are also states that do not require teachers in training to take a children’s literature course in order to qualify for a teaching license. I know this: The children’s literature course I was required to take as an undergrad (back in the dark ages of the 1960s) was the most valuable education course I had.

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