As a college freshman at Stanford University in 1963 I took the required western civilization course. The course was modeled on a similar course taught at Columbia University. The readings were contained in two volumes published by Columbia University Press under the title “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.”
The yearlong course was a revelation for me, even though I had graduated from a good Montana high school near the top of my class.
More than a half-century and a career as a law professor have passed since I was required to study western civilization at Stanford. I have never once regretted that they made me do it. I even have reference now and then to the tattered two volumes that rest on a shelf near my desk.
Twenty years or so after I studied western civilization as a freshman, Stanford abandoned the course, as did most other colleges with similar requirements. At Lewis & Clark College, where I was then a law professor, the names of the authors of many of the readings included in the Columbia volumes were unceremoniously removed from the walls of the college auditorium. Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson and all the other dead white guys I had read as a freshman were banished in favor of blank walls reflecting, perhaps unintentionally, that what was once the core in higher education had become empty.
Of course it was all about diversity, tolerance, cultural understanding and a fair dose of colonialist and capitalist guilt. Some schools replaced the core with distribution requirements while others dropped all requirements in favor of unrestricted freedom of student choice. Periodically the sad results are evident when some enterprising journalist interviews random students who think Plato’s Republic is a rock band and the Civil War was between Republicans and Democrats.
I was encouraged to learn that some students at Stanford recently petitioned to reinstitute a required western civilization course, but not surprised that their fellow students nixed the proposal 1,992 to 342. And even if a significant majority of Stanford students had voted to support the petition, there is little chance the Stanford faculty would have agreed. It is the faculties, after all, who insisted on gutting the core in the first place.
The argument against a western civilization course was summed up in a commentary in the Stanford Daily: “Before we have such courses … we must hire … more queer and trans faculty, indigenous faculty and faculty of color, and faculty who have dedicated experience in addressing tough questions about white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism within their fields.”
Given the state of American higher education, the commentator actually has a point.
Particularly in the social sciences and humanities, college and university teaching has become more about group representation and advocacy than education.
Students taught by professors who see their mission as advancing one cause or another can only assume that a course about the history of western civilization will seek to justify all that occurred from ancient Greece to modern America. They cannot imagine that history can be taught without contemporary judgment, or that understanding the philosophical and practical foundations of our own ideas and institutions will encourage much needed humility about the foundations we are laying for future generations.
The history of western civilization is what it is, just like the histories of eastern civilizations and aboriginal societies. In our globalized world, colleges and universities should teach the history of every civilization, warts and all.
Rather than taking sides, which for many professors means condemning western civilization, we should aspire to educate our students so that they have the knowledge to draw their own conclusions. Of course the risk is that students who actually understand the history of western civilization might draw different conclusions than their professors.