Enrollments and Requirements

Miriam Burstein and Scott Eric Kaufman have done the necessary close critique of ACTA’s latest report. Considering how much the problems with this document resemble those I’ve identified in past work by ACTA, I’m increasingly wondering whether ACTA has earned this kind of attention.

I did want to emphasize one point in the discussion of whether Shakespeare is “vanishing” from the curriculum. It has become increasingly clear to me that ACTA as well as some other critics of the current academy like Mark Bauerlein basically believe in a command-economy approach to curricular issues, rather than something like an intellectual marketplace. (Hence Bauerlein’s declared fondness for St. John’s College and for the way humanities are taught in some military academies.) They simply do not believe that students will study what they feel students ought to study if they’re not compelled to do so.

There are many valid criticisms to be made of the general structure of many college curricula at present. One of many problems with the ACTA report on Shakespeare is that it assumes that the lack of a requirement for Shakespeare or core literary surveys is somehow specific to the humanities, done with specific intellectual and philosophical intent. But what they’re describing is more general to the humanities and some social sciences, that the structure of majors and of general education requirements has become less prescriptive in general. Even in the sciences in many liberal-arts institutions, once a student has climbed the necessary lower rungs of prescribed course sequences, there is often considerable freedom to specialize as the student deems fit (within the bounds of whatever a departmental major can accomodate given the numbers of faculty it has).

This structure of study does have its consequences. One reason I like Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe is its acute observations about the experience of students in an open curricular structure. Graff calls students “double agents”, by which he means that they pass like spies from one epistemology to the next, observing contrasts and contradictions in disciplinary and individual pedagogy that the faculty themselves say nothing about. In an open curriculum, we trust students to find their own way to coherence, to do the work of integration on their own. That works for some students and not for others. Where this is the explicit intellectual premise of the institution, as in most small liberal-arts colleges, I at least feel that we’re not deceiving the students about what their experiences may be like. However, some students may think they’re ready to be exploratory, independent learners and then find that it is harder to do that than they thought and that making deliberate decisions about what to study is made difficult by a lack of basic information about the curriculum. They may find that the pathways they want to explore are not represented within the curriculum, that there is less intellectual pluralism and variety than a casual observer might think from a quick overview.

The fiscal and philosophical costs to a highly integrated or structured curriculum are nothing to sneeze at, however. I teach a variety of courses that I would readily admit are idiosyncratic in their perspective, even within (or especially within) my discipline. If the structure of my department’s major were to become intensely sequential, prescriptive and disciplinary, I probably would have to stop teaching many of those courses, including The History of the Future and The History of Reading.

At least some of what I do in designing classes is to try and satisfy unmet intellectual and programmatic needs across the curriculum. It seemed to me, looking at the overall curriculum, that we could use a strong environmental history course, so I decided to teach one. It seemed to me that the college could use a class on development and humanitarian intervention in Africa from the perspective of intellectual and institutional history (as opposed to the way these topics might be taught in political science or economics), so I decided to teach one. The enrollments for both courses suggest to me that my reading of the local marketplace was correct. It seems to me similarly that I ought to avoid oversupplying the curriculum with too many specifically African-related courses, so I tend to teach only three of those a year and reserve the other two course slots for other issues in cultural, intellectual and social history.

If I were teaching in a highly centralized, requirement-laden, sequential history curriculum, I would have to work through every single judgement about the needs of the college and of students with my disciplinary and divisional colleagues. That has a cost in labor time, and it has a cost in the flexible delivery of services to students. The way I teach is rather like just-in-time manufacturing, whereas a strongly sequential and requirement-laden curriculum is like an old Fordist factory combined with a Soviet-style five-year plan. The requisite number of widgets will be produced because that’s what the state has decided is needed.

If you’re going to argue for requirements, it’s best that you do so with a highly articulated intellectual philosophy. Otherwise, requirements tend to become a kind of iron cage in which every single faculty member contributes one of the bars, a sort of straightjacket smorgasbord. You give me a requirement in African history, I give you a requirement in Western Civilization. This is where the St. John’s College curriculum really does shine: it makes intellectual sense, it has a coherency and rigor to it.

Although to some extent it makes sense by fiat rather than by having to argue for itself day in and day out against some local competing vision. This is what drives me batty about some of the “great books” folks, including ACTA: they act as if it’s obvious what the canon is, obvious why it is what it is, obvious that it has always been what it is. It’s like the version of fundamentalist Islamic theology that maintains that the Qu’ran is eternal and timeless rather than historical and mediated by human transcription. For some of the great books folks, Shakespeare and the rest of the high literary canon has always been and should always be, ex cathedra. There is never any need to argumentatively or intellectually engage any of the criticisms of the canon that have been made, those criticisms are axiomatically without value, and outside the sphere of genuine scholarly debate.

If you don’t want to incur the costs of a heavy regime of requirements, I think there are ways to avoid the kind of “mixed-message” curriculum that Graff rightly criticizes. One is that faculty have to assume responsibility for mutual transparency, for staying interested in and engaged by what their colleagues are doing. You have to address the relationship between your courses and the courses of others, and between your courses and the total breadth of knowledge in a field and a discipline. Another necessary practice is that any class still has to justify itself in terms of a larger philosophical view about what constitutes an educated person. The decision to teach a class is not in and of itself a coherent statement about the purpose or meaning of that course within the larger curriculum. Another responsibility we have, if we’re really structuring our curricula as “just-in-time” as opposed to command economies, is to look for subject areas and intellectual perspectives that are underserviced and yet desperately needed.

I think this is one way for ACTA to make its case, not in terms of the supply of Shakespeare but the oversupply of other kinds of courses within the humanities. The problem with that oversupply is not so much that there is an eternal canon which must be rammed down the throats of all students no matter what but that the market is glutted within other kinds of historicist or theoretical courses that strongly resemble one another and service the same constituencies.

ACTA would understand that better if they bothered to do detailed work on enrollments rather than superficial readings of online catalogs. That means gathering a lot of information, and it also takes tracking that information across a reasonable span of time, which ACTA seems too slothful to undertake.

Just locally, I can say that our English Department steadily supplies Shakespeare, and directs students to that supply implicitly with a pre-1830 requirement. The market responds pretty much as you’d expect. Shakespeare isn’t vanishing from our curriculum if you look at the enrollments: he draws some of the biggest consistent enrollments, all without a rigid specific requirement for Shakespeare. On the same token, you could probably argue that we’ve got too many resources invested in certain kinds of historicist or period approaches. Maybe some similar patterns would appear if we looked at the last ten years of enrollment data in literature courses in the institutions that ACTA surveys, maybe not. I’m willing to bet that enrollments in Shakespeare would be consistently high over that time span, without requirements.

The amazing, jaw-dropping thing about this particular ACTA report is that they don’t even mention enrollments, from what I can see. (Let me know if I missed something.) I remember once that we worried that a student could satisfy the science distribution requirements here without taking a laboratory course. But when we ran the numbers, we found out that at best, one student per year managed to graduate satisfying the distribution requirement but without a laboratory course. So yes, we plugged that hole, but it didn’t exactly lead to a lot of hysterical running around and cries of o tempora o mores, because the numbers showed it was a very small rather than very big problem.

Enrollment data might show that a lot of departments manipulate the supply of courses so that students beat a path to Shakespeare’s door and think that they found their way to him independently. It might be useful for us all to talk about the ways in which seemingly looser requirements coupled with manipulation of the supply of courses amount to a consumerist recreation of a more prescriptively canonical view of the curriculum. In some cases, maybe we ought to just come out and be more purposeful about how we lead various horses to water and hope they will drink.

But maybe enrollment data would tell us that students and faculty alike continue to accept and understand Shakespeare’s importance to general education, and in fact, the Bard’s continued importance is all the more powerful because it comes without the need for rigid requirements. I know I’d rather bet on desires in the marketplace over a command economy for ensuring the survival of the things I believe to matter most in the world, for persuasion rather than control, for real needs over dictated ones. If Shakespeare is indeed great literature, then doesn’t he have to renew his place in the hearts and minds of every single generation–and if he is great, why isn’t ACTA confident that he will in fact do so? It’s almost as if some of the great-books defenders of the moment agree with what the critics of the canon about what the canon is, an ideological creed forced by the literati on the larger culture in defense of their social, cultural or institutional privileges. Those of us who believe that literary and historiographical canons have a value that emerges organically out of the qualities of works within those canons can afford to work without requirements and without engaging in cultural jihad.

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22 Responses to Enrollments and Requirements

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I agree that ACTA’s approach to these issues is naïve at best, and I also agree that it’s tough to articulate a case for specific requirements (whether within a major or in a general education program) if you’re *not* a St. John’s, with a completely integral curriculum. But tough though it may be, I think it has to be done. You describe yourself strictly in free-market terms: you read the “local marketplace” and act as a “just-in-time manufacturer” in order to achieve “flexible delivery of services to students.” Do you really want to characterize the life of teaching — the key decisions teachers must make — in such relentlessly Milton-Friedmanesque terms? Are there not better models for describing the goals of liberal education, even if you don’t teach at a St. John’s?

    Before you start rolling out the free-market vocabulary, you briefly acknowledge that some students may not be as ready “to be exploratory, independent learners” as they think they are, which would seem to imply the need for some directive intervention on the part of teachers — but then you characterize the problem as “a lack of basic information about the curriculum,” and say that one problem, at least, is that “the pathways they want to explore are not represented within the curriculum.” So I guess you really do frame the whole curricular discussion on terms of student/consumer “wants” and the ability of colleges to be efficient satisfiers of those wants. According to the model you’re articulating here, Swarthmore should be conducting itself — and maybe already does conduct itself — on the same principles as the University of Phoenix, just with a different clientele.

    I don’t think you have to embrace ACTA’s simplistic, reactionary model in order to think that a market-driven service-provider model is pretty thin gruel. And if I *had* to choose between the two, I think I’d have to go with ACTA. Thankfully, I *don’t* have to choose between the two. And maybe you’re not going to do so either — it all depends on what you mean by that vague invocation of the organically emergent value of “literary and historiographical canons”. . . .

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I would say in these terms that the “market” is balanced against the internal values that I hold as a scholar, and about those values I articulate alongside colleagues. So you’re right–the rhetoric of the above post only describes part of it.

    I suppose if I’m going to push the analogy further, what I think is best is something rather like a social-democratic mixed economy. The institution has some values, some core commitments, and we defend those. But we also defend the principle of choice.

    Swarthmore *definitely* doesn’t conduct itself as a market-driven institution. If ACTA were smarter than it was, it would be right to push harder on this point–that most universities are already heavily constraining choices for students, and not in ways that are either philosophically coherent or market-driven. The problem is that ACTA and others seem to think the solution to that is the drastic and often intellectually thin kind of central planning that they envision as the sole legitimate alternative to the current muddle. If that’s the alternative to the muddle, I choose neither that NOR the muddle. I’d rather use “thinking market” as a way to loosen up the logjam, to critically question some of the choices that universities and colleges currently make.

    In many ways, this is the same shift that William Easterly is advocating in development contexts: be driven more by what he calls “searchers” (not the same as consumers) and less driven by the needs of the institutions that are providing development. Not driven entirely by the searchers, since if they had everything they need, they wouldn’t need development. (Or in this context, education.) But to see their searching behaviors as rational and powerful.

    So take the issue that has a bug up ACTA’s butt this time, Shakespeare. Look at the enrollments rather than the course catalogs, and you’ll see that the “searchers”, students in this case, are drawn to Shakespeare regardless of whether you compel them to be. Are all of the students who should be drawn to him drawn to him? Maybe not. Are the costs of forcing every single student to be there worth it? No, in my view. So you start from there: who is there, who maybe should be there, and how do we construct a model that directs students to that location without crude compulsion or command-economy models?

  3. withywindle says:

    Oh, Lord, the anti-ACTA spiel again. Rah, Alan Jacob, of course. On some of your various issues:

    1. ACTA’s methods are reasonable as indicative, first-order approximations. “We need more research” is the usual contribution to do-nothingism while the revolution continues.

    2. Elites matter. What they do percolates to the rest of society–not least by how they affect the government mandates you wax so complex about. The practices of the elite colleges will become the practice of the community colleges, after a lag, as they strive toward fashionability. If Shakespeare goes from Harvard, he will disappear from Podunk State soon enough.

    3. Requirements are statements of importance and identity; they are essential components of shaping the minds of the younger generation. Abandoning requirements isn’t neutral; it is a component of a politico-cultural program. I distinctly remember from my time at Swarthmore that the English department abandoned the Shakespeare requirement, with evident hope that they could abandon the old buzzard entirely–and were forced to keep teaching Shakespeare by massize student demand. But you can’t depend on positive student pressure everyday–mostly its apathetic choice from the courses given.

    4. Tradition is an argument in itself, of course; you who quote the other Burke might note that the defense of localism you’re so fond of is intimately related to his defense of tradition. And if ACTA doesn’t express it brilliantly–so what? The explanation of the classical curriculum has statements going back to Augustine, and ACTA stands on the shoulders, of Augustine, Erasmus, and Newman, among many others. I suppose they should simply cut and paste from the appropriate passages. But, simply, the liberal arts, the civic tradition, and America were founded by men educated by the traditional curriculum; nothing invented by the modern curriculum is remotely comparable in value–and I include all of modern science in this judgment. On the track record, the traditional curriculum ought to be mandated to one and all.

    5. “Standards” and “the command economy” aren’t remotely identical. Nifty rhetoric and all that, but you (should) know better.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    You know, #3 is just plain wrong. I know the faculty member who teaches Shakespeare here: she has no desire to “abandon the old buzzard”, nor do any of the faculty in the department whom I know well. That’s the same sleight-of-hand that ACTA uses: inference of intent and consciousness from external curricular decisions. I also think you misread the students who take the Shakespeare course.

    At this point, “tradition” in the academy is anti-requirement, to be honest. If “tradition” means “something that was once done in the past” rather than “the norm in the present as it has been practiced for a generation or so”, then you kind of have your choice about where to alight on a preference, don’t you? And if it’s a choice, you have to defend it with something less lame than “it’s traditional, ergo good”. Moreover, if you want to talk about the founding of America, come on: that was an intellectually diverse lot of men, with some pretty big differences between them about what constituted a properly educated person. Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Paine, Adams: there’s a pretty rich spectrum right there. In Jefferson and Franklin, you could make just as good a case for a liberal arts curriculum that was against standardization and a narrow hewing to the classics. Of course, if the classical curriculum as you define it ought to be the alpha and omega of liberal arts education, then the sciences as they’re presently constituted don’t belong at all–they’re distinctly products of the late 19th Century German research university.

    Standards are indeed a command economy when they’re rigidly imposed from above.

    As for ACTA’s methods being reasonable approximations, I’ll be blunt: that’s just bunk and makes me wonder about your standard for reasonable approximation. If what you want to know is, “Is Shakespeare vanishing from the curriculum”, then you have GOT to know how many students are taking the courses. Moreover, you cannot substitute “Is Shakespeare a requirement” for “Is Shakespeare vanishing?”: the two are not the same.

  5. withywindle says:

    1) You weren’t around at Swat when I was a student. Doubtless my scuttlebutt is all Highly Inaccurate; nevertheless, I was closer in time to it than you are now. And since we can none of us read each other’s souls, you have no way of knowing if your faculty colleagues aren’t lying to your face. And ultimately, their motivations don’t matter, as the memory of Shakespeare recedes from America.

    2) Franklin and Jefferson were ignorant of Cicero? They favored an educational regime that relegated him to the voluntary choice of the students? I find a Jefferson quote expanding the curriculum, but with the classics kept first: “What are the objects of an useful American [college] education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish, and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics. In Natural philosophy, I mean to include Chemistry and Agriculture, and in Natural history, to include Botany, as well as the other branches of those departments.”

    3) “Tradition” means “the tradition of millennia, the core of Western Civilization,” not “the barbarism of the last generation.” This is the same subterfuge of the living Constitution types who try to say that “our misinterpretation of the Constitution is now precedent, and so everyone ought to keep our mockery of legal reasoning forever.” Tradition is every generation from Augustine to Housman; not one moment posed against the present, but rich, glorious centuries.

    4) The modern sciences are not part of traditional education. In a pinch, they’re all glorified vocational education. Mathematics and logic, of course, are traditional, and rather useful as the basis for a scientific career.

    5) The tax code isn’t a command economy. The SEC isn’t a command economy. OSHA isn’t a command economy. There all sorts of “rigid impositions” from above, which, if we’re going to use the metaphor of political economy, are eminently practicable, (as proven by experience,) and have nothing in common with the fallacies of a command economy. (And do you in your actual view of the role of the state in the economy really subscribe to a libertarian distrust of the regulatory state in all its manifestations? If not, your metaphor is particularly precarious.) Now, the critique of a command economy is that it attempts to control millions of separate economic decisions with a bureaucracy of limited ability. Setting a curriculum requires no such complications: choose books, force students to read them, test them on the contents. A medieval university had no trouble doing this; no modern college should have difficulties. If you in point of fact mean that a traditional education is a misfit for those famed complexities of modern life (which sometimes are terrible simpliciites, when we get around to criticizing globalization), this is a critique for which your metaphor of a command economy is ill-suited.

    6) Keep Shakespeare as a requirement and it will not disappear. Remove it as a requirement, and you open up the possibility for his extinction. Natural drift will do the rest. Shakespeare will die unless kept as a requirement. So will all civilization.

    7) I repeat: Burke yoked localism and tradition. Locales, after all, are defined by their traditions. His whole morality depended upon tradition. Is not your use of Burke arrant cherry-picking if you take his localism and ignore his traditionalism?

  6. withywindle says:

    Indeed, trying to match an education to the complexities of modern life *would* be comparable to trying to set up a command economy. Shift the curriculum every year to match education to what’s “relevant”–and how decide what is relevant? That is a recipe for bureaucratic disaster. So the command economy metaphor, I think, has more purchase against protean modern requirements than elegantly simple reliance on a persisting tradition.

    I wonder what Alan Jacobs will say to all this?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Let’s just go to the evolutionary metaphor. There are organisms on Earth from today that are more or less intact examples of life forms that appeared a very long time ago in the history of life. (archaea, sharks, etc.) If Shakespeare’s great, then his greatness will assure his place at the table of culture through an ongoing process of selection by readers and thinkers. Cultures change, and they should. I think this is a place where we’re just fundamentally in disagreement, and I think I’m right to think that ACTA is more or less aligned with your view of things: that “tradition” requires very specific, very rigid and very inflexible enforcement. I might add that this seems consistent with your view of the situation in Iraq and much else besides.

    As for most of your other claims, if we’re talking cherry-picking, your version of “tradition” is the most cherry-picked thing I’ve ever seen. It lets you decide what you like in the past, throw away everything else, and defend it as “tradition”. Everything else is dross. That’s fine if you’re consciously using the past as an interesting and useful source for building a present and future society, but your argument about tradition implies that you’re defending in toto some “natural” past order in its totality. That’s a kind of argument about tradition that Burke explicitly criticized: he wasn’t arguing for a society built around the social and political norms of the high medieval era, for example, but instead was a strong defender of at least some of the political and cultural changes that had taken place in England between 1500 and 1750. As for my use of him, I use what I find useful or instructive: he’s not my Bible. I think he’s right to warn us about the deep roots of social and cultural practice and the hubris of revolutionary power.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    As for trying to chase relevance, yes, that’s a good point, and I agree with Alan above. We do need standards, those standards should be explicit and philosophically coherent, and they shouldn’t just be a matter of consumer satisfaction. Some of those standards should involve a belief in a core curriculum of some kind. But there’s a big difference, for example, between saying, “All students majoring in English literature should take a course on English literature before 1830” and “all students at the college must have a course on Shakespeare” as far as standards goes.

  9. Doug says:

    This is the part of the debate where I traditionally observe that Western Civilization courses are a great way to prepare students for the 20th century.

    Now I’ll go read the comments in full.

  10. Doug says:

    WW: “Shakespeare will die unless kept as a requirement.”

    Evidence please?

    Anyway, the call to look at enrolment strikes me as a call for facts. If the data are available, why not look at them? Is ACTA interested in data or in posturing?

    Anecdotes not adding up to and all that, when I attended a small, liberal arts college, the Shakespeare courses were often well populated by non-majors who thought that a semester or year of Shakespeare was an important element of a liberal arts education. And yet, if I recall correctly, the conservative critique was that standards were falling everywhere and education was going to hell in a handbasket. Can you tell what decade I went to college in? No? Maybe it’s because the conservative critique is eternal and unchanging, impervious to the ravages of time or the world around it.

  11. Doug says:

    “But there’s a big difference, for example, between saying, ‘All students majoring in English literature should take a course on English literature before 1830’ and ‘all students at the college must have a course on Shakespeare’ as far as standards goes.”

    And there’s an even bigger difference between those two, and saying “All liberal arts institutions (or indeed, all universities) must require all students to take a course on Shakespeare.” What variety of standard are we talking here?

    Then of course, there’s the teeny, tiny matter of how “a course on Shakespeare” is actually taught. I’ve heard that his plays are open to varying interpretations. And that people may teach them in a variety of ways…

  12. Alan Jacobs says:

    There are so many issues wrapped up in this conversation that it’s hard to disentangle them all. Just a few notes:

    (1) When people deplore the demotion of Shakespeare from a requirement to an option, it’s rarely clear to me whether they are doing so because they think that the demotion is bad for the students or bad for Shakespeare. My response to the one claim is very different from my response to the other, because I think Shakespeare can take care of himself. It’s vital to remember that Shakespeare rose to his unique stature in English literary culture before there *were* English departments. The “English major” is little more than a century old.

    (2) When people talk about “relevance” in curricula, they usually mean “what students think is relevant to them,” but I would contend that many topics and authors that students would not imagine relevant are, indeed, profoundly so. It’s important to remember that before they take certain classes or read certain authors, students can have largely fantastic notions of what those classes or authors are like. They are rarely well-informed judges of their own interests (in the sense of “what will interest them” *and* “what is in their best interest”). Which I think puts the onus for designing a coherent and meaningful curriculum squarely on the faculty. I think this applies in history and literature alike.

    (3) In English departments, and I think also in history departments, the first question that needs to be settled is whether, on both the gen. ed. level and the major level, we are *primarily* in the business of teaching skills or in the business of providing exposure to a range of material. And it does no good to say “both” — one will, de facto, be the primary business of a department, even if hats are tipped in the other direction from time to time (a classic example of a “hat-tip” being the requirement of one measly course in the vast collection of major writing that’s more than a hundred and eighty years old). Once that decision is made, many other issues become clearer, and some intractable disputes tend to evaporate.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    2) is very important, and that’s where our role as experts and arbiters becomes important, I agree.

    The skills vs. exposure thing is also crucial. It’s probably clear to readers here that I tip more towards the skills side, that this is what the liberal arts mean to me. Which means that I tend to think that whether you’re teaching a course on Zoroastrianism or Homer, Latin American economics or cognitive science, if you’re not teaching students how to think through and with the topic of the course, to look at it from a lot of angles, to use the course as a springboard to more than just competence with the material, you’re not doing the liberal arts.

    Again, that’s a place where I think institutional pluralism works pretty well: we can have institutions that heavily emphasize exposure and institutions that heavily emphasize skills. Aren’t we enriched when we have both choices in our educational ecosystem?

  14. Alan Jacobs says:

    Let me add to Tim’s vote for the “skills” preference. I used to take the other side, but then I started asking myself this question: Which would I rather do, have my students read a handful of books I think exceptionally important, or train them as cultural critics, as discerning readers and judgers, in such a way that they will eventually gravitate, on their own, to the richest, most complex, and most rewarding texts? Or, to put it another way: what is more important, making sure they read Shakespeare when they’re twenty, or helping them acquire intellectual and aesthetic habits that will have them *wanting* to experience Shakespeare (and other artworks of high quality, like, say, “The Wire”) when they’re thirty or forty or sixty?

  15. ikl says:

    I think that if I were “education dictator” I would probably force high students to read (or at least pretend to read, it’s hard to really force high school students to read anything) non-trivial amounts of Shakespeare. Then they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to spend any more time on this in college. So even if ACTA has its heart in the right place, the venue really seems wrong. If Shakespeare is that important, why leave it for college? This sort of thing seems like a core function of secondary education, not college education.

  16. Western Dave says:

    I’m with ikl. I read Shakespeare in high school, and continue to read/watch Shakespeare today. College was used by me to open up areas that I had never before explored “real history,” anthroplogy, sociology, political science, philosophy, and (ugh) economics and statistics. As much as I dreaded some of those courses at the time, I was better for all of them.
    And btw, I’m the one who graduated without taking either Shakespeare or a lab course.
    And Withy, if memory serves, you graduated after I did which you means you don’t predate Tim by all that much and, again, if my memory serves correctly the requirement was changed to accomodate the odd Honors English student who got caught by the two seminars at the same time problem. I’m class of ’89 so I think the change was under discussion before I left but not enacted. And I believe Harry Wright retired the next year so Tim’s first year would be ’91?
    And oh yeah do they need an environmental history course. When I taught it the thing was full and Carr seems to think the demand is still there.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    I think my first year was actually 93. Seems harder and harder to remember as time goes on. Harry Wright was retired for at least one year when I started.

    There’s no doubt that there’s a demand for environmental history–I think it was your offering that really suggested that to me forcefully, even though I don’t have your facility with the historiography.

    A lot of this is, “What are the things we think students must do that we think they’re inclined not to do?” I think Shakespeare is actually low on that list: there is way more inclination out there to study Shakespeare without any extra urging than there is many other important topics. I think it’s more important to make students in the humanities seriously engage the sciences, for example.

  18. withywindle says:

    I’m going to wimp out of this discussion, because I’m suddenly short of time. Sorry to run in mid-debate; no excuses; I beg your pardon. Brief points–and I’ll see if I can add other brief points for the next post–

    1) My idea of tradition is to be a superlative topic for invention. The richness of tradition allows for richness of invention by each student; lose tradition, and you invent on a paucity of material.

    2) I believe I intersected with neither Western Dave (not knowing who he is) or Tim. I took and enjoyed Harry Wright’s course on South Africa. Where Harry Wright one day handed out a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies to us, then, when we’d started eating them, said, “You know, they’re a year old.” Everyone stops eating. “Or more. Does it matter? They taste the same, don’t they?” We ponder. Yes, they do. Continue eating. Pity he retired when he did; I’d planned on taking his Modern Africa seminar. And of course I graduated before his replacement arrived.

    3) Disappearance of requirements leads to drift and disappearance: see Latin.

    4) I confess that when you say that Burke isn’t your Bible, it does make me much more skeptical of your citation of him. As I say, cherry-picking.

  19. oconnor says:


    There is much I could say about your response to the ACTA report. For the moment, I will just stick with two observations.

    The first is that your reading of the report does not seem to be as careful as it could be, and that your criticisms suffer as a result.

    You say, for instance, that “One of many problems with the ACTA report on Shakespeare is that it assumes that the lack of a requirement for Shakespeare or core literary surveys is somehow specific to the humanities, done with specific intellectual and philosophical intent. But what they’re describing is more general to the humanities and some social sciences, that the structure of majors and of general education requirements has become less prescriptive in general.” You go on to elaborate, via Graff, on the problems created by broad curricular shifts away from requirements, with the suggestion that ACTA has simply overlooked this issue. But ACTA hasn’t. It’s mentioned in the conclusion to the Shakespeare report, with reference to ACTA’s recent full-length study on precisely this topic, The Hollow Core. So, perhaps, your thinking on this issue is closer to ACTA’s than you had supposed. Dialogue appears to be genuinely possible here — but it depends on you giving the report a fairer reading than you have.

    The second point has to do with your idea that major requirements need not reflect a cohesive picture of disciplinary knowledge if it can be shown (or simply presupposed) that some essential areas of study, such as Shakespeare, usually take care of themselves. I have to disagree with you on this point, not least because, even though Shakespeare is the test case for it, it’s not a typical test case. A couple of years ago the National Association of Scholars issued a study of changing English major requirements that compared today’s requirements to those of 1964. Their sample was, unfortunately, quite small (they focussed on 25 top colleges). But what they found was revealing. Shakespeare requirements were disappearing (Swarthmore’s among them), but Shakespeare courses were still popular. They did note, though, that Shakespeare was probably the one author who could survive the gutting of the English major, and that less popular but equally important authors such as Milton and Chaucer had not fared so well.

    I do agree with Withywindle that “the disappearance of requirements leads to drift and disappearance.” Such a recognition is not incompatible with routinely reviewing and revising requirements to ensure that they reflect current understanding of what content is and is not important.

    To my knowledge, no one has responded to the ACTA report by saying that Shakespeare is not important. There does not seem to be any controversy on that point. So, if it is important, that importance should be reflected in English major requirements–as it is at Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, Wellesley, and a host of other schools. Schools that don’t require Shakespeare stand in contrast to schools that do, and are implicitly saying that Shakespeare is not essential to literary study. And that strikes me as interesting and worthy of further inquiry.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    That last paragraph would be an interesting basis for a report. It’s not the ACTA report, however. For one, it strikes me that you identify the heart of a potential discussion that could be thoughtful, that could consider more sides than one of an issue, that could be open-minded. Namely, is the lack of a requirement really a statement that something is not essential?

    I think knowledge of African history is useful, important, and in certain key areas, close to essential for a sophisticated understanding of how the modern world came to be what it is. (The Atlantic slave trade, in particular.) Would I require it of all undergraduates or even of history majors? No. Because requirements and “essential” are not synonymous for me, for many of the reasons I’ve outlined on this blog, and especially in the discussion in this thread. If nothing else, because I think an emphasis on thinking historically will eventually lead any well-educated student to that topic. But also because of a kind of pragmatism that leads me to think that expert-driven or authority-driven institutional practices are going to have to bend in many ways if they’re not going to break, not just in English or History majors, but in libraries, in public policy, and much else besides.

    As I said, this could be the basis for an interesting discussion: do you need requirements? Are requirements the same thing as standards? Is a requirement necessary to make a statement that something is “important”? If everyone continues to acknowledge Shakespeare’s importance, then what’s the evidence that requirements are necessary? Why do you and Withywindle believe that the disappearance of requirements leads to the disappearance of literary standards, actually? What’s the evidence for that? Didn’t Shakespeare become important over the course of three centuries without the benefit of curricular requirements in mass public education? What makes Milton or Chaucer or Shakespeare or any other author important: is it the history of literature (that they are precedent to later work), is it the qualities of their work, or other elements? Is college really the proper place for the work of requirements, or should that come earlier? And so on. I hope you seriously do not believe that ACTA’s latest report actually is a discussion along any of these lines. It’s a polemic that doesn’t even bother to argue on behalf of its central premises, but merely declares them as obvious truths.

  21. abstractart says:

    While pointing out the lowbrow origins of Shakespeare has become a cliche in discussions like these, I still find it funny that the old man has become the reigning definition of “traditional standards” and “classical education” when any of Shakespeare’s classically educated Oxfordian contemporaries would’ve thought of studying the plays as though they were Ovid or Cicero the same way many ACTA members think of studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer as though it were Shakespeare.

    I predict that academics in the 25th century will be having this same debate about the tradition of Buffy Studies sinking over the horizon and the growing disconnect between students and the immortal prose of Joss Whedon.

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, it’s another crucial point. It’s why I find defenses of Shakespeare as “traditional” so telling, not to mention inappropriate to the subject himself. A very large percentage of what has been called “traditional” in American educational debates in the last three decades basically is pin-pointed to a lot of curricular and intellectual debates in the first half of the 20th Century, not to time immemorial.

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