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Wherefore art thou, Shakespeare?

On Bard’s 450th birthday, fewer college students study his works

Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Daniel Burnett

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?

Sorry, Juliet. He’s hard to find on many college campuses.

Today is accepted as William Shakespeare’s birthday, and on the Bard’s 450th, American higher education gives him about as much love as the Capulets gave the Montagues.

Many top American universities don’t require students to study Shakespeare. Think that’s bad? Many don’t even require a Shakespeare course of their English majors.

Right here in Illinois, University of Illinois students are’t required to take a course on Shakespeare. Not even if they’re English majors.

That’s right. Arguably the greatest figure in English literature, who forever transformed theater, influenced great thinkers, and shaped the English language by inventing or popularizing now-common vocabulary, is being forgotten on college campuses.

Where would we be without words like swagger? Or eyeball? Or puppy dog? Or kitchen wench!

The reason for this wretched state of affairs is that students are routinely allowed to graduate with huge gaps in their skills and knowledge. According to the What Will They Learn? study (www.whatwilltheylearn.com), just 38 percent of institutions require even a single college-level course in literature.

And Shakespeare is not the only one vanishing from the minds of today’s college students. Only 3 percent of institutions require economics, and just 18 percent require a basic course in American history or government.

The results are distressing, to say the least. A recent survey found that only 17 percent of college graduates – graduates! – knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, just 42 percent knew the Battle of the Bulge was fought during World War II, and not even two in five could identify term lengths for their senators and representatives.

It is not by chance that Shakespeare was with Nelson Mandela on Robbins Island, and that a copy sat on Abraham Lincoln’s desk in the White House. These plays have served as the school of leadership for centuries.

Yet, far too many graduates will have no more exposure to Shakespeare than the frantic skimming of SparkNotes the night before a ninth-grade English test. In some cases, not even that.

The serious study of the liberal arts summons us to maturity. It is simply reckless when colleges don’t require such meaningful, fundamental courses.

Employers – another word popularized by the Bard – understand this.

According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 80 percent of employers believe all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, regardless of major.

A graduate’s diplomamust be more than a receipt for the tens of thousands of dollars spent on a college education.

It must be indicative of a student who has been educated not only in his field of study, but in basic subjects that a college degree implies.

Too many colleges snap up tuition checks and shuffle students through to graduation without instilling the core skills and knowledge the American people expect of a college graduate. That’s simply obscene and disgraceful.

Two more words for which you can thank the Bard.

Note to readers: Daniel Burnett is press secretary of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence.

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