Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Sorry, Juliet. He’s hard to find on many college campuses. William Shakespeare’s birthday was last week, and on the Bard’s 450th, American higher education gave 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. Universities around the country such as Yale, New York University, Penn State, Ohio State and the University of Florida have no such requirement.
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! The reason for this wretched state of affairs is that students are routinely allowed to graduate with huge gaps in their skills and knowledge. 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 that 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. To further highlight our misplaced priorities, a Google search for Justin Bieber produces 400 million hits — more than 10 times as many as a search for William Shakespeare. 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 still, 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 that universities should require all students to take classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history and foreign language A graduate’s diploma must be more than a receipt for the tens of thousands of dollars spent on a college education. It must be indicative of a student who has been educated not only in his field of study, but in basic subjects that a college degree implies. 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 Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit organization dedicated to academic excellence.