Vanishing Act

Peter Wood

Last week the National Association of Scholars issued a report, The Vanishing West 1964-2010:  The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum. It documents something that I imagine few would doubt—namely that survey courses on the history of Western Civilization have become very rare in the curricula of America’s top colleges and universities.  

Nonetheless, we have spent roughly nine months compiling the evidence, going through old course catalogs and disentangling myriad academic requirements.  The initial point, which we thought would take only weeks to establish, was to see whether the general impression was true. Have colleges and universities really retired Western Civilization from the curriculum?

But as often happens, simple questions do not necessarily have simple answers.  We do have a general answer: The often two-semester survey course usually taught by faculty in the history department that covered the West from ancient Greece to the present has indeed gone into radical eclipse.

Readers who want to peruse the data have the link at hand, and there is no real point in my repeating it here. But to give a flavor of the study, we found, for example, that in a cohort of 50 top-ranked colleges and universities, in 1964, 41 of the 50 offered a complete two-semester or partial (one-semester) Western history survey course. At 10 of the institutions it was a general education requirement. The nine universities out of the 50 that didn’t offer a Western history survey course all had instead a required interdisciplinary Western Civilization requirement.  In other words, all 50 had some version of a Western Civilization requirement, some stricter than others, and a minority (18 percent) taking an interdisciplinary rather than a historical approach. 



By 2010, the Western history survey course was no longer a general education requirement at any of the 50 institutions, and the interdisciplinary Western Civilization requirement was gone too. Sixteen of the 50, however, still offered the history of Western Civilization as something that could meet broad distribution requirements, i.e. it was one course on a list of seven or more that a student could take to fulfill a requirement. Two institutions offered Western Civilization as an option in what we called a cluster: One course among six or fewer that fulfilled the requirement.


Gaze at something long enough and deeply enough and you are almost certain to find things you didn’t expect. We were pulled along by the logic of the enterprise. If Western Civilization was disappearing from general education requirements, was it still a requirement for undergraduate history majors? If it was growing scarce at elite colleges and universities, was it still common at major public universities? If not Western history, what about survey courses in American history? The answers in all three cases proved mostly negative. Forty-five of the 50 colleges and universities in our benchmark cohort had no pertinent requirements for history majors. 



And the pattern held for public universities as well, in both general education requirements and requirements for majors.




And the data on American history survey courses look much the same.


Of course, the real question is, “Why does any of this matter?” One reason it matters is that the Western Civilization survey course once provided the coherent organizing principle of the liberal arts curriculum. It has not been driven out by a better organizing principle but mostly by ideological opposition. In its absence, the liberal-arts curriculum has descended into a mixture of self-indulgent specialization, triviality, and gestural attempts to establish a core out of a collection of fragments. Nothing has really come along that can provide the compelling and intellectually rich interconnectedness or the narrative wholeness of a curriculum based on the study of Western Civilization. “World history” is too amorphous. “Multiculturalism” has proven to be little more than reification of ethnic resentments. “Diversity” can’t keep its own narrative straight, let alone organize a curriculum. Race-class-gender reductionism organizes things all too well, and marches students into a desert of intellectual sterility.


The results have a mass migration of students out of the humanities and the liberal arts. Moreover, the excision of Western Civilization as the organizing principle of the curriculum has coincided with a vast decline in academic standards.


Yes we know, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe the out-migration from the humanities and the liberal arts and the cratering of academic standards had other causes. Surely it had other causes. I would put mass higher education at the head of my list of suspected causes. But then again, the arrival of mass higher education was one of the reasons why the Western Civilization survey course was slowly phased out. It was read by many critics as too elite in character.


There is a complex story here that goes well beyond what I can say in this format and beyond the NAS report itself, but some of the elements are clear enough. We have to distinguish Western Civilization itself; the college-level history course often called “Western Civilization,” and Western Civilization as a governing idea for the curriculum. The governing idea can linger even if the history course disappears, and to some extent it has. But without the course, the governing idea doesn’t govern very well. Students may learn to refer to the Greeks, Medieval Europe, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and so on, but their knowledge of such subjects is chaotic: crowded with excess detail here, blank there; by turns schematic and ornate; over-interpreted and half-baked. The purpose of the survey course was to give a rounded overview, and in its absence, students acquire that hodgepodge of facts and misproportioned opinions that might be called an underview. And not just students. This has gone on long enough and penetrated so deeply into graduate education that it is characteristic of many faculty members as well.


I don’t exempt myself. I spent my undergraduate and graduate years studying social anthropology and I graduated from college in 1975 knowing a lot more about the colonial history of sub-Saharan Africa than about American or European history. I learned to regret what I missed and to repair the gap as best I could. As someone who had all the supposed benefits of an unstructured, multicultural undergraduate education, I grew skeptical of the idea that anyone had done me a pedagogical favor.


To some critics, Western civilization itself is an object of hatred and derision: a source of misery and oppression at home and abroad. Studying such a civilization except as an act of debunking is a waste of time. A related line of criticism holds that the traditional survey course on Western Civilization was merely an exercise in class triumphalism: telling the story in a manner that justified the privileges of the elites.


If one subscribes to such views, there really isn’t much more to say. Except that those views are themselves pretty silly. Misery and oppression are, of course, part of the history of the West, as they are part of human history everywhere. There is no Western exceptionalism on that score. On the other hand, if we seek to understand the advancement of human freedom, it is pretty difficult not to focus on the West. Slavery as a social system was fairly close to universal until the British legally abolished first the slave trade and then slavery itself. Concepts of legally enforceable personal rights are by no means exclusive to the West, but if we seek to understand the development of political systems centered on such rights, the West again looms large.


So, should we study the West because of its exceptional character? That is indeed a pretty good reason, provided that we are ready to own the sheer difficulty of the question. The West compounds a history of intellectual, philosophical, religious, scientific, institutional, political, commercial, military, and technological innovation, with each feeding into the others and being fed in turn. Theorists of how these developments interlace and how the causal factors are to be teased apart disagree profoundly.


When I talk with students in college right now, I am often struck by their unearned confidence on matters like this. “Western history?  We covered that in high school.” “American history? We all took the AP exam. No need to repeat something so simple.” “It is just memorizing facts.” Those are more or less direct quotations from students at Bowdoin College with whom I spoke on Monday night. Bowdoin does not require—in fact it doesn’t even offer—a Western history survey course, or an American history survey course. The Bowdoin students I spoke with did not sense any lacuna.


That epitomizes the problem. There is no AP history examination on Western Civilization that covers the topic from ancient Greece and Rome forward. And while I have no doubt the AP exams are good for something, they really are not a substitute for a well-taught college history survey course.


We are met here with a lack that a good many bright students don’t experience as a lack. They are confident that their curriculum with its surfeit of options and opportunities for zeroing in on specific topics is serving them well. So an argument in favor of teaching Western Civilization survey courses is not likely to succeed if it is founded on consumer demand. The students—a good many anyway—have no idea what they are missing. They may one day awaken to that defect, but I judge by own experience that it will prove a hard thing to remedy.


The better arguments for teaching Western Civilization survey courses are founded on what students need to know, not what they want to know. They need to know something about their own civilization, especially if they hope to improve it. They need to know the history of the West if they hope to navigate the fads, delusions, and manias of our time, because these are merely the newest iterations of follies that run perennial in our culture. They need to comprehend the cultural predicates that fostered the growth of scientific thought in the West and gave our civilization what the historian William McNeill called its unique “restlessness.” They need especially to understand that if they hope to be thoughtful participants in great struggle to shape world civilization.


Having said all this, I suppose it sounds as though the NAS report ends up calling for a restoration of the old Western Civilization curriculum. Actually, it doesn’t. There are probably too few historians capable of teaching it even if colleges and universities were suddenly seized by a collective desire to dust off fifty year old syllabi and resume where they left off. But no, we don’t that would be a good idea. The world has changed; the discipline of history has been changed; and in any case the task of constructing a meaningful synthesis of the past is always changing.


The Vanishing West concludes with a series of recommendations that colleges and universities each do their own fine-grained assessment of how Western Civilization is present (or absent) in their current curricula, and proceed to rebuild on that basis; we call for repairing the graduate education pipeline so that we have teachers who are once again competent over the whole history of the West; and we invite the development of new Western Civilization courses that synthesize traditional and contemporary perspectives.


The report aims at amelioration, not revolution. But I’ve spent enough time on the topic to know that controversy awaits. Contemporary academe has more than made its peace with its flattened, randomized, and multicultural curriculum. To many faculty members and a fairly broad gathering of students, “Western Civilization” is not an academic course. It is a provocation.


This article originally appeared on May 19, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....