Last year in this space, we reported that Georgetown University, capitulating to the meretricious forces of multiculturalism and political correctness, had decided to scrap the requirement that students majoring in English read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton (see “Georgetown Flunks English,” The New Criterion, January 1996). Instead of immersing themselves in the masterworks of English literature, English majors could henceforth devote themselves to such topics as “Studies in Culture and Performance,” an area of study that—in the words of a document put out by Georgetown’s English department—focuses on “the power exerted on our lives by such cultural and performative categories as race, gender, sexuality, and nationality.” In other words, it was goodbye to Shakespeare, and hello to multicultural claptrap.

We noted in the course of our report that the situation at Georgetown, far from being unusual, represented business as usual in contemporary American higher education. All across the country, traditional academic standards are under siege. The jettisoning of major authors in favor a race-gender-class goulash is one aspect of this siege, and anyone who cares to look will find evidence of it at every turn.

But this is not, of course, what the academic establishment would have you believe. Even as the teaching of the humanities is being gutted from within by increasingly rabid ideologues, spokesmen for the academic establishment are busy bleating that there is no cause for alarm, that criticism of the academy is overstated, that the hue and cry over the politicization of the humanities is a fantasy concocted by “right-wing” extremists.

Indeed, such efforts at damage control have become a routine feature on the academic landscape. The worse things get, the more vociferously academic claques broadcast the soothing message to the public—to parents, alumni, and trustees—that things have never been better or more salubrious within the expensively cloistered groves of academe. A typical example of such efforts at damage control was “What’s Being Taught in Survey Courses?,” a national poll published by the Modern Language Association a couple of years ago. As was noted in these pages at the time (see “A Farewell to the MLA,” The New Criterion, February 1995), this survey of English departments was essentially a public-relations blind. Dispensing the cheery news that Chaucer was taught in 89 percent of undergraduate survey courses, Shakespeare in 77.7 percent, and so on, the survey was intended to be “reassuring to parents of college-age students” because it showed that “traditional authors continue to be the mainstay” of English survey courses.

What this poll did not discuss, of course, was the extent to which such standard authors are in fact being squeezed out of the curriculum at prestigious institutions like Georgetown or—in some ways even more alarming—the extent to which, even when taught, they are made to serve the radical PC agenda: you know, Milton the misogynist, Shakespeare the spokesman for white imperialism, etc.

The true gravity of the situation was brought into sharp focus recently by the National Alumni Forum in a report titled “The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying.” Sparked by Georgetown’s decision to eviscerate its requirements for English majors, the NAF conducted an inquiry into what was in fact being taught in the country’s top college English departments. The results of that inquiry were aptly summed up by the headline of an article that William H. Honan wrote about the study for The New York Times: “At Colleges, Sun Is Setting on Shakespeare.” As Mr. Honan notes, the NAF’s new survey shows that

required courses on the great writers are falling by the wayside. In their place, courses proliferate on popular culture topics, like “The Gangster Film” (Georgetown), “Melodrama and Soap Opera” (Duke University) and “20th-Century American Boxing Fiction and Film”(Dartmouth College).
And how is the academy responding to this report? Predictably, with a combination of diversion, derision, and denial. Quoth William W. Cook, chairman of the English department at Dartmouth College: “We mustn’t deify Shakespeare.” Well, OK, but how about simply making sure that college students read Shakespeare?

As the NAF’s report makes clear, things are even worse than Mr. Honan’s summary suggests. Of the seventy colleges surveyed, only twenty-three require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. And this result, the report notes,

was reached using a very generous definition of a Shakespeare requirement: Colleges requiring students to read at least two of three authors—one of which is Shakespeare—are classified as requiring Shakespeare, whether or not the student in fact reads the Bard.
At Dartmouth, for example, English majors “must choose one course dealing with a single author” and “may choose from among Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston,” et al. As Jonathan Yardley noted in an astute column on the NAF report in The Washington Post, “the sheer vulgarity” of this requirement beggars belief: “Shakespeare and Toni Morrison as equals!” But such vulgarity, Mr. Yardley goes on to observe,
is everywhere in the English departments, which no longer require students to study works of literature chosen by scholars for their quality, importance and universality. Instead they let students pick and choose in an academic supermarket where “popular culture” as well as the Holy Trinity of “race, gender and class” are the dominant elements.

And the closer one looks, the more dismal things get. Mr. Yardley is quite right that “reading through the lists of courses now offered by these academic whorehouses, one searches long and hard to find evidence of literary knowledge, taste or intellectual rigor.” On the contrary, what one finds are courses dominated by arcane literary “theory,” radical politics, and anemic sexual grandstanding. Thus Amherst features courses in the “Literature of Sexuality” (i.e., such tasty morsels as “Queer Fictions: Texts from the Turn of the Century”) while Georgetown’s “Detective Fiction as Social Critique” enlightens students about how detective novels “critique and offer alternatives to the nuclear family, traditional masculine values, and capitalist ideology.”

Defenders of this poisonous academic orthodoxy never tire of telling us that everything is just dandy in American higher education. The latest piece of public-relations pablum from the academic establishment is The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History, by Lawrence Levine, winner of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a professor of history at George Mason University and the University of California at Berkeley. This book, which was intended to be the academy’s answer to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and other books critical of contemporary academic life, insists ad nauseam that critics of the academy have provided “no documentation” for their accusations. The truth is that there now exists a small library of hair-raising documentation about the decline and perversion of academic standards. “The Shakespeare File” is an important addition to this melancholy reading list. It can be had from the National Alumni Forum, 1625 K Street, N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20006. Telephone: (202) 467-6787.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 6, on page 1
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