Out damned Canon! Out, I say.
It’s Wednesday, April 22, and I’m sitting in my English major advisor’s Mallinckrodt office for my exit interview from the major. The interview, I’m told, is to help the department assess what’s working in the major, what isn’t and what it can do to better serve the next generation of Washington University’s literary scholars. She picks up her pen and asks me if I have any suggestions for the department, and I say, “Maybe there should be more requirements—like, I really don’t know if I should be able to graduate with an English major without taking a class on Shakespeare.” She laughs before saying, “We used to have more requirements like those, but then we realized how many people we were losing.”
A day later, the Associated Press released an article entitled “Report Finds Few Colleges Have a Shakespeare Requirement.” The report in question, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015,” noted that only four of the nation’s 52 highest-ranked universities and colleges, according to the U.S. News & World Report, have a Shakespeare requirement for their English majors. Washington University is notably among those without.
“It is with sadness that we view this phenomenon,” Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), told the Associated Press. “It really does make us grieve for the loss to a whole generation of young people who would look to a college or university for guidance about what is great and what is of the highest priority.”
What is great? What is of the highest priority? What does it mean that Poliakoff is turning to colleges and universities to moralize their students to Shakespeare, and by extension literary canon itself?
I stopped there—that thought of literary canon—because almost invariably when we speak of literary canon, we are in fact speaking of Western literary canon—and within that, Western literary canon written by white men. There’s a reason why some Great Books programs get a reputation for teaching dead white guys—because that’s oftentimes all the “canon” is. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the traditional liberal arts education thought to include texts by women and people of color.
This is a trend the study itself notes: “Indeed, while Shakespeare and other canonical authors are no longer required, many institutions such as Rice, Vassar and Vanderbilt go further and require students to study ‘non-canonical traditions,’ ‘race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature.’”
Further, the study notes that these courses are “notable not because they focus on great literature, but on everything but that heritage,” which in itself is a dangerous line of thinking because it implicitly conflates greatness with whiteness, with maleness, which is to say, if it wasn’t written by a white man, it can’t be great—it can’t be canon.
When I heard my advisor say “but then we realized how many people we were losing,” I heard that the department wasn’t keeping enrollment numbers where it wanted, a motive the study uses as one of the primary reasons English departments have redistributed requirements as they have. But what I should have heard was we realized how many great writers and thinkers we were losing by strictly adhering to “canon”—and further, what great students we were potentially losing by not having them represented in our course of study.
During my tenure as an English major at Washington University, I’ve taken classes on critical race, gender and sexualities theories and classes on Caribbean, colonial and post-colonial literature. I’ve taken no classes on Shakespeare. I am, in a sense, the study’s nightmare—a world filled with English majors with little-to-no formal background in the Bard. In fact, it finds one of its greatest anxieties in the prospect of future English teachers who haven’t been immersed in the canonical greats, in favor of the passing fancy of classes like Northwestern University’s “Women Who Kill: Portrayals of Women & Violence in Literature & Film” or Cornell University’s “Punk Culture: The Aesthetics and Politics of Refusal.”
This is not to say Shakespeare and his canonical brethren are not important. Rather, it is to say academia and our intellectual culture at large has a history of silencing and ignoring those voices that don’t fit the mold of white male.
For context, we live in a culture where in a given St. Louis summer, one can watch no fewer than three Shakespearean plays free of charge and where children’s shows like “Sesame Street” allude to the Western greats on a regular basis and where despite not taking a class on Shakespeare in college, I can point to no fewer than 50 of his sonnets I’ve encountered and five of his plays I’ve pored over during my study of English literature. Perhaps much to ACTA’s surprise, Western canon is in no danger of dying out, whether top-tier universities require it of their English majors or not. Those writers and thinkers who fall outside the realm of traditional “canon”—they have just as much to teach us as Shakespeare or Milton or Chaucer does, if not more.
And while I, and the countless other English majors like me at Washington University and elsewhere, have not formally studied Shakespeare in a class solely devoted to him in college, we still have gained the ability to interact with texts on a critical level, like I’m doing now with “The Unkindest Cut,” and that’s ultimately what the tenets of a good liberal arts education should aspire toward. ACTA may view “The Unkindest Cut” as the minimizing of Shakespeare in collegiate curriculum, but in truth that unkindest cut took place years before, when academic institutions omitted the vast majority of the world’s authors for a focus on Western canon, and it is only now that its unkindest cut is beginning to heal.