Last spring Georgetown University found itself embroiled in controversy when its English department dropped a "Great Authors" requirement for majors. The Great Authors - at Georgetown and, indeed, at most institutions of higher learning - were usually considered to be Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. Requirements were designed to ensure that English majors read deeply in one or more of these authors. Georgetown required students to take two.
But no longer. Now, beginning with the class of 1999, students will be obliged to read none of these authors. Instead, they will be free to choose among a wide array of election courses such as "Prison Literature" or "History and Theory of Sexuality."
When many in the Washington area raised howls of protest, Georgetown responded by claiming that its English professors were simply following a national trend. That defense is true enough - as a study recently released by the National Alumni Forum points out - but this will be cold comfort to those who rightly feel that English majors sans Shakespeare are at the very least suspect goods. As a professor of English I have followed the arguments on behalf of "opening up the canon" with a sinking heart, not because I believe that what our students ought to read is etched in granite, but because the brief against Great Authors is often packed with politics and driven by self-indulgence. The issue is no longer what our students need in order to be well-educated English majors, but, rather, what an individual professor would most like to explore. The result is that of the 70 institutions surveyed, only 23 require a course on Shakespeare, and many do not even require a survey course that might include a sonnet or two. The rub, of course, is that one cannot add the new and trendy without also subtracting the old and reliable. Put another way, if English majors no longer need worry about King Lear or Hamlet, what characters and issues do they confront? The answer, at one institution after another, seems to be "cultural studies," a recent phenomenon that has little to do with culture and considerably less to do with "study. …