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.