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Decline of 'Western Civ'?

Decline of 'Western Civ'?
May 19, 2011

Survey courses in "Western Civilization," once a common component of undergraduate curriculums, have almost disappeared as a requirement at many large private research universities and public flagships, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Association of Scholars.

The report finds that, since 1968, the number of the selected colleges that require Western Civilization courses as a component of general education curriculums and U.S. history as a component of history majors has dropped. This decrease has coincided with more focus on world history courses.

The association argues that Western Civilization courses are uniquely capable of introducing students to key themes of a liberal education. "In the absence of such an organizing principle the curriculum spins out into an all-things-to-all-people cornucopia of offerings, many of them exceptionally narrow in scope and many of them trivial in character," the report states.

Historians and curriculum researchers attribute the de-emphasis on Western Civilization courses to significant changes in higher education curriculums, student diversity, university educational goals, and how history researchers study the world and receive training. They argue that survey courses and Western Civilization courses might not be the best model for all students, and that a more complete world history course is actually better suited for the modern liberal arts education.

To develop the report, NAS examined the curriculums of a group of 50 "top" universities to compare with data it had on those colleges from 1968. The association also surveyed another 75 large public colleges to paint a more complete picture of the higher education world today.

Fifty years ago, 10 of the 50 "top" colleges mandated a Western Civ course, while students at 31 of them could choose a "Western Civilization" course from among a group of courses that would fulfill general education requirements.

The situation is different today, according to the report. None of those "top 50" colleges and only one of the 75 public universities, the University of South Carolina, mandates one semester of "Western Civ." The association did not count Columbia University and Colgate University as offering the traditional "Western Civ" course, even though those institutions require two-semester courses on Western thought, because those courses include non-Western texts. Sixteen of the "Top 50" list Western Civ among several choices for a general education curriculum, as do 44 of the 75 large public institutions.

The association acknowledged that there are limits to the conclusions that can be drawn from the study. The NAS surveyed only 125 colleges, and the survey didn't measure the extent to which students are studying the material in question, just not in required courses.

Anthony Grafton, president of the American Historical Association and a professor at Princeton University, said demographic changes and university responses to those changes account for some of the shift documented in the report. The "traditional Western Civ course," he said, was especially well suited for the student population of the 1960s. But he said today's student body is radically different and might not be as interested in such courses. He also attributed the change to an increasing specialization among professors, which affects how well they can teach broad survey courses and how much they enjoy doing so. "People do the best teaching and studying when they study and teach what they love," he said.

Brandon Hunziker, a history lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose Western Civilization syllabus is cited in the report as an exemplary model, expressed similar sentiments to Grafton's. "I teach my course in a more traditional way because that's a story I can tell well," he said. Hunziker said he and his department teach western civilization from a variety of perspectives and that he doesn't necessarily think his is the best approach for every teacher and student.

The debate about where Western Civilization and U.S. history courses fit into the greater higher-education curriculum coincides with a debate about how best to teach such material. Whereas many colleges in the 1960s had standard core curriculums, more and more universities have moved to a model where students select from a broad range of courses in thematic areas.

"Whether or not our students are learning American history is not necessarily best measured by seat time in large survey courses," said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. He said that is a question that will be explored in more detail by education researchers.

NAS President Peter Wood could cite no evidence that the removal of Western Civilization courses from university curriculums has negatively affected students, but did cite recent studies and publications that have found that students are learning relatively little in college.

"Evidence is mounting in a pretty impressive way that American higher education is graduating significant numbers of students who have gained little from it."

But Grossman said the shift toward world history helps give students a more global perspective, which is needed in such a connected world. "The notion that the cultural traditions of our population reside in Western Civilization is belied by the demographic changes in the American population," Grossman said. He said it is knowledge of world history, a perspective that encompasses Western Civilization, that students are going to need in order to be successful in business, nonprofit, and government jobs.

 

 

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