The death of Western Civilization courses leads to ‘buyers’ remorse’

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By Greg Markley

The lead article in the current National Review is “Why We Must Teach Western Civilization,” a plea that is late but heartfelt. Andrew Roberts is a British historian and Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The sub-head is: “The legacy of our culture is unsurpassed in human history; to ignore it is an act of rank self-hatred.”

This should matter especially in Lee County where we have a major public research university and a community college. All future undergraduates will be affected by whether they are mandated to take Western Civ. classes or not. Roberts notes that in 1964, 40 of the top 50 American colleges required students to take such classes, which meant reading Homer, Plato, Milton, Voltaire, and more.

“…The legacy of Western culture, in terms of both its sheer quality and its quantity, is unsurpassed in human history,“ he wrote. “We are deliberately underplaying many of the greatest contributions made to poetry, architecture, philosophy, music and art … often simply in order to try to feel less guilty about imperialism, colonialism and slavery, even though the last was a moral crime committed by a minority of few people’s great-great-great-grandparents.”

As I thought about merits/demerits of Western Civilization courses last night, two words came to me: Fob James. Yes, that’s right, the two-time governor with family and business connections to Opelika and Auburn. James drew negative press in the late 1990s when he suggested state government should be run like Waffle House: “You get fast, friendly and good service.” James was concerned with productivity among the bureaucracy.

Taking the longer view, I wrote an editorial for the daily noting that the governor was on to something. Government services should be streamlined and the public should be grateful to state employees when they perform well. Likewise, in Western Civ., students should get solid information. The challenge: because of the way the world has evolved beyond the white-male-dominated West, you must spend time on other areas and topics too.

Remember, as well, that whether a Western Civilization or any history undergrad survey course interests or excites you depends a lot on the professor. Emeritus history professors Joseph Kicklighter and Wayne Flynt were sought out by many students no matter what history class they taught. Western Civilization classes at schools such as community colleges may be taught by inexperienced grad students or by amazing veteran history professors.

Herbert London, a prolific conservative writer, wrote a widely read article in NewsMax in 2011 on “How Western Civilization Disappeared from College Campuses.” He noted that Western Civ. survey courses no longer exist at universities and were replaced with courses “that either undermine traditions in the West or balkanize the curriculum.” A National Association of Scholars report in 2011 showed that only 2% of colleges required these courses.

“This survey course covering classical antiquity to the present was the glue, the all-embracing narrative, that gave coherence to everything else the university taught,” London explained. “At the very least, these students came away from this course with a partial recognition of their civilization and its monumental achievements.”

Western Civilization courses were doomed when Eurocentrism became a prevalent worldview, starting in the contentious early 1970s and heightened in the 1990s. Eurocentrism means that the focus is the historical West. The idea is that bias leads to these courses giving non-Western nations less recognition.

The decline of compulsory Western Civilization courses came in conjunction with demographic changes among society and the student body. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other groups wanted to have history courses show the under-appreciated aspects of their race or ethnicities. To me, that is understandable not only in terms of more accurate history but so students can learn about heroes that look like themselves.

But where do we stop? Western Civ. books are derided by many students as “too long, too boring, and too confusing.” It’s true that ANY survey course, whether history, English literature, etc. has a rough challenge: to touch upon so many people, places, and things from so many epochs and genres. I read a survey class textbook that had just two sentences on aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Think about this: Lindbergh, at age 25, went to huge fame and respect by surviving a nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. Riding alone on the 1927 flight, he covered the 33 1 ⁄ 2 -hour, 3,600-statute-mile flight in a specially built, single-engine monoplane, the now-legendary Spirit of St. Louis. It was the longest transatlantic flight by 2,000 miles, earning Lindbergh the Medal of Honor.

The book I read skipped two more developments. First, Lindbergh’s long plane ride created interest in commercial flights and bringing air mail. Second, after the awful incident in March 1932, in which Lindbergh & #39s infant son, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and murdered, there was a major legal consequence. Congress made kidnapping a federal crime when a kidnapper crosses state lines with a victim. But a reader of many textbooks would not learn any of this.

I have no gripe with Western Civilization courses, but only so long as changes are made to include the currently left-out people and their accomplishments as part of the fabric of civilizational studies. This all will take creativity and tight editing. It looks like Waffle House and Gov. Fob James may have to wait a bit longer to be featured in these books.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 19 of the last 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has masters degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.

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