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Are Colleges Coming To Praise Shakespeare, Or to Bury Him?

More institutions let English majors bypass the Bard, arguing for greater diversity

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For literature lovers, it's "the most unkindest cut of all": It seems there could come a time when many American English majors won't know who wrote those words.

While schools across the US have been touting stricter standards and a return to the basics, some say university course lists are telling a different story, and nowhere more so than in the English department.

A recent study has renewed debate about the perceived shift away from traditional core subjects, like Shakespeare, to newer and more diverse courses. Critics are charging that English professors are "dumbing down" their departments and ultimately, the quality of American students. Others say the debate isn't so simple: that fields of study are expanding, not narrowing, and that academic disciplines, like society, evolve.

"I'd suspect many [English] departments are divided," says Kathy Eden, chair of the literature, humanities program at New York's Columbia University.

The latest round of controversy was sparked by the Washington-based National Alumni Forum, which recently canvassed 70 of the nation's top colleges and universities to determine whether they are dropping Shakespeare and other great authors, and if so, what new courses were taking their place.

The results, forum president Jerry Martin says, were "extraordinary." Of the 70 universities, only 23 required English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.

The study charged that some schools are granting English degrees to students who may never have read a Shakespeare sonnet or play - a situation it likened to fraud.

Discarding the Bard, it concluded, is "not merely a trend; it is now the norm." The ramifications the forum foresees go beyond the job market to potentially threaten America's "leadership in the world. Or even its unity as a nation."

The catalyst for the study was a decision made in the spring of 1996 by Washington-based Georgetown University to drop its "great author" requirement - two courses on Milton, Shakespeare, or Chaucer.

The study pilloried the school for freeing its English majors from the "burdens of the great writers, allowing more opportunity to study 'Hardboiled Detective Fiction.' "

"It makes for an interesting sound bite," observes Sandra Hvidstem, communications director at Georgetown, "but there's very little fact there."

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