How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

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%

                Western civilization

Learn about the importance of                                                 18%                  17%              18%

                Non-Western cultures 


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.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

3 thoughts on “How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

  1. Don’t forget I mentioned Asia too. I was thinking specifically about south Asia with its plethora of philosophical schools of thought. Greeks did not invent nyaya, sankhya, mimamsa, etc but they borrowed from them, and I have no problem with borrowing and adding on or subtracting from other cultures and philosophies. I just wished I had been taught that that’s what they did back when I was going to school. It wasn’t until I was an adult that the almost limitless world of south Asian philosophy and its influence was opened up to me.
    What a shame.

  2. JaiHind, I must take issue with your pronouncement that the Greeks received the content of their philosophy from Egypt and Asia. Sure, greeks appropriated monumental architecture from egypt in some cases, but it would be a stretch of the imagination of herculean proportions to say that the Greeks did not generate their own philosophy. There is absolutely no evidence of appropriation in the historical record. This issue is explored quite well in Mary Lefkowitz’ two books and articles on the topic and in the general “Black Athena” debates which occurred a few years ago. Egyptian culture, while obviously very impressive, didn’t have the secularity and freedom to question fundamental assumptions that ancient Greece possessed. The word of pharoah and the priests was the rule of god / the law – not much room for debate there. 🙂 So, unless, you’ve discovered evidence to the contrary, I think we have to give the Greeks credit for inventing what we now term philosophy.

  3. By the classics of Western Civ I’m assuming you mean the works of Greek philosophers. Philosophy is the core attraction in such a case and in that realm the Eastern classics cannot be beat. In fact, the Greeks got much of their concepts from Egypt and Asia. Therefore if one is interested in Greek philosophy it follows they will be interested in Eastern philosophy as well. By studying Eastern philosophy all of the topics covered in Greek philosophy are covered, and then some. My suggestion would be that univerities, if they must choose, should go with Eastern philosophy.

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