One of the greatest flaws of the ACTA report, as others have mentioned, is historical: it declares that Shakespeare requirements are "vanishing," but neglects to compare the number of required Shakespeare courses in 2007 to the number of required Shakespeare courses in, say, 1957. There's simply no way of establishing the veracity of ACTA's claims either way without doing some very dull (and quite possibly expensive) archival work, but that the work might be dull hardly excuses ACTA's failure to do it. ACTA can hardly advance the excuse made for Foucault--namely, that the philosophical framework is more important than the factual data. After all, ACTA's point is nowhere without the statistical data in place, and ACTA has so far not provided the data. (Yes, yes, I know: I'm being a boring conservative again, demanding empirical evidence and all. So sue me.)
What's also missing from the report, of course, is any "philosophy of requirements" in the first place. That is, ACTA does not ask itself why some courses are to be required, and others not; it simply assumes that Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, must be required. Now, I'm actually all for requiring Shakespeare, but having said that, I can think of many colleges which probably don't need to do so. In fact, it's quite possible that most colleges don't need to do so. Let me explain.
To speak very broadly, the reasons for requiring courses can be divided into "high" and "low" categories. Usually, a specific course must fall into both categories before it is "required." (Distribution requirements are a slightly different kettle of fish--they aren't being addressed here.)
- High: This subject is of such intellectual significance that no student's education can be complete without it.
- Low: If we don't require this damned but important course,the students will never take it.
Note, to begin with, that an author's aesthetic greatness is not grounds for making him or her required. Departments rarely require Milton, who is great (and, quite frankly, almost as important for literary-historical reasons as Shakespeare); nor do they require Chaucer. Charles Dickens and George Eliot are great novelists, but I've yet to see a department require anybody to read them. I would suggest that the Bible is more important than Shakespeare, but Bible as Literature courses usually aren't required (or, at least, not in secular programs).
Similarly, literary-historical significance is also not grounds for requiring a given author or subject. Sir Walter Scott is arguably the most influential novelist of the nineteenth century--not just in Britain, but also on the Continent and in the United States. There can be no history of the novel without Scott. And yet, we do not require our students to read him. (It's worth remembering that many Victorians would have put Scott's name right next to Shakespeare's.) We do not require our students to read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, even though the Pilgrim's Progress saturates later Anglo-American culture. For that matter, we don't require our students to have even a passing acquaintance with Latin.
Now, to use an example from my undergraduate career, UC Irvine requires the infamous CR100A--an introduction to literary theory course. It's a big, scary class that frequently reduces innocent English majors to hysterics. The number of students who willingly expose themselves to its clutches is probably minimal. Nevertheless, it's a very useful course--because, in fact, knowing something about the history of literary criticism is helpful when it comes to reflecting on one's own contemporary practice, in much the same way as knowing something about the history of hermeneutics helps seminarians deal with modern Biblical interpretation. CR100A is a fine example of a course that meets both the "high" and "low" requirements: students really need to know something about the subject in question, and they are likely to run screaming from the room if you suggest that they should take the class voluntarily. By contrast, the students were perfectly happy to enroll in Shakespeare all by themselves; in fact, the quarter I took the course, students were sitting on the floor because the course was packed to overflowing.*
And there's the rub: for ACTA, Shakespeare is "vanishing" because many schools don't require it, but they neglect to ask how many students actually take Shakespeare--or even how many sections of Shakespeare are offered in a given quarter or semester. If students line up for Shakespeare of their own volition, then the department doesn't need to require it. Requirements are not, in other words, just Arnoldian value judgments: they're partly responses to the needs and behaviors of the student body.
*--When I was an undergrad at UCI, I wrote a letter to the editor in which (speaking of "the canon") I pointed out that it was possible to finish an English degree without studying Shakespeare. But what I didn't mention, of course, is that to do so would require considerable planning on the student's part (not to mention an inexplicable antipathy to Shakespeare).