Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sirra, let us not tarry, but hasten towards sweet cultural oblivion

Imagine for a moment that you're a 17th century European university professor. A startling report (written in Latin, of course) has been circulated, revealing the terrible news that professors across Europe, from London to Paris to Geneva, are no longer teaching John Duns Scotus! That great figure of our cultural heritage, that inheritor of the classical past, that responder to the immortal questions which plague human life, is being pushed out of curricula by a motley crew of rationalists and empiricists, including some fellow named Descartes (and isn't he in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?).

So, ha-ha, silly academic disputes, right? What might have been perceived at the time as a crisis of the institution (and I have no idea, I'm just imagining a scenario) is today nothing more than hair-splitting and long bypassed conservatism.

So why are we constantly reminded that SHAKESPEARE IS DYING, and that this spells doom, or something, for our VERY WAY OF LIFE? Case in point: The New Republic's "Open University" blog, which contains this post from some dude named Robert Brustein. You see, Shakespeare as a required course for an English degree has decreased from 23 schools out of 70 to 15. This means, by some incredible leap in logic, that "at the present rate of attrition, in twenty years you won't find a Shakespeare course anywhere in the country." Umm, required or non-required? Something tells me the Bard will be with us for quite some time yet; if majors are "no longer asked" to read him for their degree, I don't really give a shit.

And you can guess why Shakespeare is out of fashion: it's those pesky minorities! (God, it almost pains me to report this cliched shite.) Brustein quotes a Very Serious-Sounding Report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that "While Shakespeare and other traditionally acclaimed authors such as Chaucer and Milton are no longer required, many institutions such as Rice, Oberlin, and Vanderbilt require students to study 'non-canonical traditions,' 'under-represented cultures,' and 'ethnic or non-Western literature.'"

Why don't you give us an example, Bob, and we can all collectively laugh at the expense of the dark people? Great, thanks: "English majors can avoid reading Othello in favor of studying 'Critical Race Theory' which explores why race 'continues to have vital significance in politics, education, culture, arts, and everyday social realities,' including 'sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism.'" Suuure, and next they'll be telling us that cultural values are relative! Imagine!

A quick glance at the University of Virginia's English Department website shows that there are nine classes available which explicitly list Shakespeare in the title or course description. Some dearth. Here's how Brustein ends his post:

"A recent newspaper cartoon shows two young girls walking out of a school. One turns to the other and says, 'I have two mommies.' The other replies, 'How much is two?'" Gotta watch that positive correlation between TEH GAYS and inadequate math skills. (Where is that cartoon from, the Bob Jones University Collegian?)

In all seriousness -- and perhaps Brustein wasn't been completely serious -- these boo-hoo Shakespeare jeremiads are so lame. I'm from a classics department, for Christ's sake, so I suppose I could, like some nutters, be running around screaming bloody murder that undergrads no longer know Pindar's 3rd Nemean Ode. However, I recognize that no one, not even Shakespare, is immune from academic decision-making and editorializing, nor should they be. Shakespeare is great, yeah, he might even be "intrinsically" great, but what if there are just too many intrinsically (or otherwise) great authors to make room for him? Might not this be conceivable? What makes him super-duper-special, or in the words of Brustein's post, "the language's greatest writer"? Am I the only one that feels this way? What would be unacceptable "canon-slashing" in your college major?

2 Comments:

Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

1. Most literature post-Shakespeare is influenced by Shakespeare. I won't back up this claim, but I believe it to be true and doubt you can refute it. Reading Shakespeare is thus important because it helps us understand newer texts in their correct context. Moreover, the fact that Shakespeare influenced so many should tell us something: it's hard to see why we should not value something that so many great writers valued. I doubt John Duns Scotus had anywhere near the impact on English literature that Shakespeare did and does; feel free to prove me wrong.
2. An English major should have some expertise in the best literature in the English language. It's not conservatism to say that a Chinese major should have read Lao Tse or a German major should have read Goethe. Thus your classics example doesn't apply. A more adequate counterexample would be taking Cicero or Plato out of the required reading for classics.
3. I take issue with this sentence: "I recognize that no one, not even Shakespare, is immune from academic decision-making and editorializing, nor should they be". Congratulations, Scantron, you've recognized the superiority of your chosen institution! We'll all sit around and applaud you now. The truth is that academia has many groups to which it must answer, and I know you realize this. What could you have meant here? I'm curious.
4. Why does this come up, you ask? Because people have to teach something. Most schools require some core curriculum, and I agree with this guy that Shakespeare should be part of that. If there are so many other, better english texts to read, why don't you name a few? What would be on your core curriculum? Should students even be told that there are certain works which are valued over others?

8:37 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Ah, robust opposition, good. I'll answer your points in turn:

1. I would never try to refute that much, much literature is influenced by Shakespeare. Nor do I question whether or not Shakespeare might be valuable. I do, in fact, think he is valuable. But that was my final point: how valuable is he, ultimately? And no matter what we might think, do we really want to question departments' decisions to exclude him from the *required* course list? (Almost all college departments, I would be willing to venture, have Shakespare if you want 'im.) My Duns Scotus example wasn't meant to say that Scotus was/is as influential an *English* figure at all: he was a philosopher, and no doubt many, many a medieval scholar was required to read him. My point was not one of strict comparison, but rather an invitation to think about the arbitrariness of required reading lists.

2. It might not be conservatism to say that a German major should read Goethe, but it is somewhat arbitrary. Again, I'm just asking, if Goethe weren't required (and is he, in most German departments?) would we say that German departments are irremediably decadent? And could we say that he had been replaced by something, not only the same, but positively *bad*, as Brustein seems to want to say about "race/class/gender" studies? Also, keep in mind that the issue is strictly one of required vs. non-required reading. We might be incredulous if not one scholar in a German department was familiar with Goethe, but how likely is this? And as for classics majors, neither Cicero nor Plato is strictly required. I read Plato in my first Greek language class, but this was largely arbitrary and could just as well have been Xenophon or some other typical introductory Greek author. I never again read a text of Plato in Greek, besides non-required, outside-session reading groups in a philosophy class. The structure of the classics dept was that you had to take a number of upper level language courses, plus a certain number of hours of upper level classes and seminars. These latter had no inherent structure; usually they were just whatever struck the fancy of the professor teaching them, like Tacitus (Pepe) or Demosthenes (Balot).

3. The sentence you quote is not a conclusion, but an introduction to the proceeding sentences: "Shakespeare is great, yeah, he might even be "intrinsically" great, but what if there are just too many intrinsically (or otherwise) great authors to make room for him? Might not this be conceivable?" But maybe you were not concerned with my delivery but with the content? What do you mean by my "institution"? Classics? As for the many groups to which academe must answer, I presume that they have already answered these groups when their syllabi come out; those insisting on a curriculum requiring Shakespeare have simply "lost out" in the bargaining process, beaten by the school's particular department, the demands of the current academic market, the state and direction of the profession, etc. I wasn't saying that I believe such-and-such, and therefore it must be so; I'm saying that it *is* such-and-such a way already, and I'm defending that way against its detractors.

4. Your last comment is definitely the most difficult to answer. I would like to introduce here a thought that might split the difference between us: You say that Shakespeare should be read, I say that he's good but it's not the end of the world if he's not required, and Brustein says that more and more college English majors aren't being required to take a *course* in Shakespeare. It seems very likely to me that while perhaps Will doesn't have a whole course devoted to himself in every instance, it's very likely that English majors *will* run across Shakespeare in a required survey course of some time. (To return to the University of Virginia: they require 3 'histories of literature' courses. Surely one of these contains Shakespeare!) As for which authors absolutely should be read, I don't know; I think it's kind of weird that any particular *author* should be required for an English major, rather than themes and periods. Shakespeare is certainly the one if you're going to require any one author, but I think we know my opinion about that already. I realize that I brought this upon myself by saying that there might be "too many...great authors to make room for him," but what I should have said was great "literature," more broadly. As for your last question, that's really, really hard. I don't know if I could tell a student that certain works ought to be valued over others, but perhaps instead that not knowing certain authors would make it almost impossible for one to "join the conversation" in the field. This holds out the possibility that the works currently valued today might not be valued tomorrow. These are just preliminary thoughts, but I'd like to think more about what it would mean to design a curriculum.

Just to reiterate, in a slightly less polemical form than when I presented it, these are my main two points: (1) the requirement or non-requirement of an individual Shakespeare course for an undergrad major cannot measure the relative decadence of a school, department, or academe, and (2) even less does the lack of required Shakespeare courses bode ill for society/culture as a whole. (E.g. I do not find convincing Brustein's suggestion that partly because Shakespeare courses are no longer required, over 50% of the adult population of America doesn't read books in its spare time.) Still less am I open to the implication that minorities and gays are somehow culpable in this respect.

But let me ask you a question: If you think a Shakespeare course should be a requirement for English majors, and if his value is self-evident in some way, why might other people not also think this? Are they obscuring what is patently good and valuable for political reasons of some kind?

PS- Did you notice this linked to on politicaltheory the other day?:

http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/lpbr/reviews/2007/04/cambridge-companion-to-ancient-greek.html

I bought this book today.

12:57 AM  

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