As last week was Shakespeare’s birthday week, The Bard himself took centre stage in many different artistic and cultural events, venues, and communities. It’s a great week for people (myself included) who are really passionate about Shakespeare to flaunt their passion. Bardolotry can be forgiven, and the excess praising of English’s greatest writer seemed justified.
But we must come back to reality.
Most of my posts in this section focus around the question of “why do we teach Shakespeare in schools?” as well as exploring how we teach Shakespeare in schools. I hope that I have presented this question from a different angle each time as to not sound incessantly repetitive. But I do believe in the importance of the question, and I believe in the conversation (even if it is one sided – although I fully welcome and would love any comments on the matter).
The question of “why Shakespeare?” is also one that remains prevalent in education-related news, which I take as further justification.
All of this stems from an article I read last week, “So long, Shakespeare: Most colleges don’t require courses on the Bard, report says.” There was something immediately irksome about the content of this article. It was certainly not the fact that colleges don’t require Shakespeare courses. And it was not the author’s misinterpretation of the word wherefore in the famous Romeo and Juliet quote. I think what baffles me is that this is an issue at all.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) conducted a survey to determine how many of the US’s top universities offer a course solely focused on Shakespeare: the result is that only 4 out of 52 do. Why is this such an issue?
“Although it’s surely important for college students to study a wide array of literature from every part of the world, it is frankly ridiculous to be graduating future English teachers who have little more than a high school knowledge of Shakespeare,” said ACTA President Anne Neal. “It’s no wonder that the public is rapidly losing faith in our colleges and universities.”
I think my passion for Shakespeare is well documented, but equating the decline of Shakespeare to the public thinking that higher education has gone to the dogs had me thinking I was reading a satirical article. And yet here is ACTA’s website: it’s all too real.
Furthermore, the notion that the only point of completing a degree in English is to teach it is a terrible shadow looming over academia. I love teaching because I love education. I happen to teach English because that is my greatest passion. I did not study English and then, thinking that teaching was my only option, decide that I must pursue it. Given the state of schools in Canada, that is a dangerous plan, and one that very few – if any – make.
So why shouldn’t someone be able to study English and not delve deep into Shakespeare? Northrop Frye notes Shakespeare as one of the pillars when he sets up his theory as archetype, but even Shakespeare draws from the Bible and classical mythology. Why should English majors not have to take a course in ancient mythology? I believe it can be said that any novel written in or after the 18th century owes itself to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – how often is that studied in colleges? The study of English language is vast, and the beauty of pursuing it in post-secondary education is that you have a more invested interest in it than the majority forced to study it in high school. Studying Shakespeare in high school is great because of how accessible he is, language barrier aside. But please, let us not take part in the witch hunt against those who find other aspects and periods of English literature more worth their pursuit than Shakespeare.
I am perfectly happy to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s works during his birthday week, but to ACTA and similar groups: Milton is just as worthy of praise.