Advocate of Western Civilization Finds a Home for His Ideas at Texas Tech's Honors College

Peter Monaghan

Peter Monaghan's article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education here.

Stephen H. Balch, the longtime leader of a group that promotes the study of Western civilization, has moved to Texas Tech University.

On Thursday, Kent Hance, the institution's chancellor, was scheduled to preside over the opening of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, which Mr. Balch will direct.

It will do what Mr. Balch has long advocated for colleges and universities nationwide in his role as a founder and then president of the National Association of Scholars, from 1987 to 2009: emphasize the accomplishments of the West.

From his Lubbock office, Mr. Balch, 68, said that the institute will stimulate discussion on the campus through guest lectures, symposia, brown-bag lunches, and conferences. It will also propose courses to be taught at Texas Tech, and even courses of study.

He says he hopes his colleagues in the Honors College, the institute's academic home, will join him in that endeavor. Initially such colleagues would teach courses, but "I hope we'll grow to have an influence in hiring," to recruit academics interested in "the big questions" of Western civilization. "But that would be done on a collegial basis," he added. "It's not something I can or should do by myself."

Expansion beyond Texas Tech is among his goals, too, "because Western civilization can't survive on one campus alone."

The establishment of such a center at Texas Tech, a large public university, is striking, given how long its director, and his mission, have been contentious among academics. Mr. Balch and the National Association of Scholars have disparaged numerous perceived misdirections in American higher education, among them what they call politicization and trivialization in the classroom, an overemphasis on identity and pop culture, suppression of debate, excessive tuition fees and other flaws in higher education's financial model, and such issues of academic integrity as plagiarism and grade inflation.

Five years ago, Mr. Balch says, he decided the time to move on was approaching: "I really wanted to do some of the things I had urged others to do," he said. He began to gradually hand over the reins at the National Association of Scholars to Peter Wood, who is now the group's president and is also a contributing writer to The Chronicle. Mr. Balch remains on the association's Board of Directors, which he chaired from 2009 until August this year.

As he sought a new base, Mr. Balch says, he found several institutions interested in accommodating him. "But none offered me as promising a set of possibilities as Texas Tech," he said.

For that, he thanks "the vision and boldness of the leadership here," particularly Chancellor Hance. The chancellor raised private money to pay Mr. Balch during a three-year trial for the institute. Mr. Hance said he would welcome any opportunity to emphasize "how did these great things happen in Western civilization, and some not so good," and one opened up after he happened to meet Mr. Balch.

While the institute will offer students chances to study Western civilization, Mr. Hance says, it will not be part of any push for curricular change at Texas Tech, which is one of three institutions run by his system office. "That would be a decision to be made by the university and the faculty there," he said.

Daniel Nathan, president of the university's Faculty Senate, says he is not satisfied by that reassurance and the way the institute and Mr. Balch's appointment have come about. "I'm worried about the curricular implications of the presence of the institute," he said on Wednesday. "There certainly hasn't been appropriate faculty involvement." Mr. Nathan only found out about it three weeks ago, he said, "when it was already a fait accompli."

Changes in curriculum need faculty oversight to satisfy campus and accreditation requirements, says Mr. Nathan, who is an associate professor of philosophy. But, he says, his understanding is that, among several faculty members who were invited to meetings at the Honors College to consider the idea of creating the institute, few expressed any enthusiasm.

Mr. Balch says he has received a warm reception at the Honors College.

At the association, he was, as he put it himself this week, "a vocal critic of an awful lot of the conventional wisdom of American academe and its politics."

"We advocated reviving what we thought were traditional ideas of American higher education," he said, through "great books" programs and other means.

Even by its own report from last year, the association has a long way to go. "The Vanishing West" documented the near disappearance from American curricula since 1964 of courses focused on the association's definition of an appropriate way of teaching Western civilization.

Before founding the association, Mr. Balch earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, during its time as a center of social and cultural upheaval in the United States, and then in 1974 began 14 years of teaching government and public administration at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

His first five weeks at Texas Tech have already convinced him that the Honors College, like the university as a whole, is "an unusual place," he said, "with a strong emphasis on humanistic teaching, so it's a very good home for the institute."

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