Study Finds English Classics Diminished

Article excerpt

The study of classic literature is eroding at some of the nation's best liberal arts institutions, according to a report on college English departments by the Princeton, N.J.-based National Association of Scholars.

Though today's English majors "may graduate knowing lots about racial, ethnic and sexual politics," many will leave college knowing little about Shakespeare as well as other influential authors, periods or literary genres, which provide an intellectual backbone for a well-rounded education, the association says.

"We rely on our leading colleges to produce the next generation of writers, scholars, critics and educated readers," said the group's president, Stephen H. Balch.

"Do we really want the authors, poets and English professors of the 21st century to be more knowledgeable about `South Park' and Spawn than William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman?

"If these gifted young people aren't encouraged to absorb the richness of the English literary tradition, our culture can't help but be diminished," Mr. Balch said. "While some institutions still take this civilizing mission seriously, most, strangely, now think they have better things to do."

In their study, "Losing the Big Picture: The Fragmentation of the English Major Since 1964," researchers completed a content analysis of English curriculum course descriptions and catalogues at 25 top private colleges and universities from 1964 to 1998.

Amherst, Trinity and Wesleyan were cited as schools that have most stripped down their English majors; Virginia's Washington and Lee University and the College of William and Mary won praise as institutions that continue to offer "a more traditional English major," the study said.

The survey found that:

* While the total number of English courses had doubled, the proportion of foundation classes had declined on average by 23 percent, with the majority of schools abandoning requirements for core English and American literature survey courses. …