The Disappearance of Western Civ

If you happened to attend college back in the day, the term “Western Civilization” was common currency among most undergraduates: it was something you expected to wrestle with, usually during your freshman year.  In one way or another, “Western Civ.” covered the intellectual, cultural, artistic, religious and political heritage of European civilization, erected on the twin pillars of Greece and Rome.  The American Constitution, of course, was also a direct descendent of this tradition, as even a cursory reading of the Federalist Papers would confirm – you’d understand why the upper chamber in our national legislature was called the Senate, or that the original Republicans had nothing to do with a political party.  None of this necessarily excluded the study of other civilizations, needless to say.  But there was a settled consensus among America’s educators that all college graduates, irrespective of their major fields of study should know something about the events, personalities and institutions which were largely responsible for such modern hallmarks as liberal political institutions, scientific inquiry or market capitalism, which have shaped and dominated the contemporary world far beyond the confines of Europe and America.  One way or another, that’s certainly what most students did.

How times have changed, as we document in the new National Association of Scholars  report, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010, available here.  Between 1964 and the present, the study of Western Civilization has literally disappeared from most college curricula.  Not only is it not required, you’ve often got to search  pretty hard to find individual history courses that tangentially cover bits and pieces of the themes once commonly encountered by most undergraduates.  Often enough, you can now collect your very expensive college degree – believe it or not – without studying any history at all.  Or if you do take a history course, you’ll often find equal weight apportioned between one that examines US Foreign policy, 1900-1950 or another that analyzes the erotic secrets of antebellum plantation mistresses.  The only criterion in most cases seems to be student choice, whether it’s the fall of Rome or the rise of Elvis Presley – take your pick.   And whereas the study of history once focused on the game-breaking events, ideas or dominant actors that made a difference, the only thing that seems to matter nowadays is race, gender, class, ethnicity, or the equality of all cultures.  In a way it makes things such as Western Civilization a lot easier to understand: it can all be reduced to the “narratives of white men” (you wouldn’t believe how often I ran into that irksome categorization in the process of gathering our data).  Think of it: Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven or Groucho Marx all fit in nicely here.  If students learn anything at all about Western Civilization these days, it’s likely to be through the lens of oppression, racism, sexism and colonialism.  If only I were making this up.

None of this, of course, is to argue that the past was a Golden Age, or that we should now try to reinstate the standard Western Civilization survey as it typically was found in 1964.  That in itself runs contrary to the tradition of inquiry which has defined the Western tradition since Socrates.  But if you think that history education is a civic obligation, that there are seminal events, people and institutions that should be imparted to college graduates whatever else they do, then our survey confirms that American higher education in 1964 certainly made that effort, whatever its shortcomings.   It’s certainly not what your hefty tuition buys you these days, and we hope that our survey will give prospective students and their parents a sense of what they’re paying for.

Glenn Ricketts

Glenn Ricketts is Public Affairs Officer at the National Association of Scholars.

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