GUEST COMMENTARY: College students should eyeball Bard's work

2014-04-23T22:10:00Z 2014-04-24T17:29:23Z GUEST COMMENTARY: College students should eyeball Bard's workBy Daniel Burnett
April 23, 2014 10:10 pm  • 

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

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

April 23 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.

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!

Students are routinely allowed to graduate with huge gaps in their skills and knowledge. According to the What Will They Learn? study, just 38 percent of institutions require even a single college-level course in literature.

And Shakespeare’s 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 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.

Too many of today’s graduates are more familiar with the Kardashians than the Kennedys, with Lady Gaga than Lady Macbeth. 

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. Or that Winston Churchill urged on the movie production of "Henry V" during World War II. 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. Seven in 10 Americans agree universities should require all students to take classes in core subjects like writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history and foreign language

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.

Daniel Burnett is press secretary of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence. The opinions are the writer's.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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