Not far into an important book published recently is a table displaying results for one question on the North American Academic Study Survey, a poll of professors, administrators, and students administered in 1999. The survey is the basis for The Still Divided Academy by the late-Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Roessner, and Matthew Roessner, which reviews the results and draws balanced conclusions.
The table lays out the rate at which four goals were judged by faculty members as “essential” to education. Here are the results…
Doctoral Masters Baccalaureate
Provide a broad, general education 57% 52% 48%
Prepare students for employment after 21% 26% 17%
Learn about the classic works of 14% 13% 17%
Learn about the importance of 18% 17% 18%
It is tempting to focus on the relative scores of classic works of Western civilization and the “importance” of non-Western cultures, but a finding described four pages later in the volume thwarts the easy conclusion that multiculturalism has eclipsed Western civilization. That finding shows a positive correlation between Western and non-Western study–“That is,” the authors write, “those who believe that learning about non-Western civilization is important are also likely to support learning about Western classics.”
The correlation suggests that a common motive underlies both areas of study, namely, a commitment to history, literature, art, religion. We should view the first finding in the table above, then, not as Western and non-Western cultures in competition, with non-Western winning by a few points, but rather as both areas together in competition with something else. We know that there is something else because of the first “essential,” a “broad, general education,” which 57 percent of baccalaureate teachers selected. Clearly, most of them do not include Western civ or non-Western cultures in the “broad, general education category” (or a least not significantly so).
The questionnaire in the survey doesn’t include other options than the four listed above, but I would guess that what professors mean by “broad, general education” is a little science, some math, perhaps a course on media, a writing class, and something on “society.” This is pretty much the make-up of general education requirements on average across the higher education land, and they usually can be satisfied with a range of courses under each category. To hold up classics of Western civilization as central to general education strikes some of them as Eurocentric, yes, but I suspect that Western classics impress many more of them as simply irrelevant to contemporary life. They tie general education to the present, to the things you need to know in order to understand and act in the world as it is today. And they value non-Western cultures not so much as histories, literatures, arts, and religions to be examined in depth, but more as “other-ly” materials by which students will acquire a disposition to tolerance, an awareness of diversity. In other words, non-Western cultures yield an attitude, not a body of knowledge.