Why Texas Should Revive Western Civ Study

Steve Balch

NAS Chairman Steve Balch gave the following statement before the Texas House Higher Education Committee this morning. His speech was part of public testimony presented on this charge: "Study the feasibility of offering an optional curriculum that emphasizes ethics, Western civilization, and American traditions to satisfy portions of the Texas core curriculum." To watch the video of his testimony, click here (Dr. Balch's segment occurs at 1:08:15-1:21:57).

Thank you for the opportunity of presenting these remarks.

I serve as chairman of the National Association of Scholars. Founded in 1987, the NAS is a membership organization of higher education professionals that seeks to promote the traditional ideals of liberal education. We have a national membership of about 3000, and 47 state affiliates including one in Texas whose president, Professor Rob Koons was formerly head of the Western Civilization and American Institutions Program at the University of Texas. I’m also a member of the advisory committee of the Coalition for American Traditions and Ethics in Texas.

I’d like to begin by drawing the committee’s attention to something we normally take for granted. We live lives that would have appeared miraculous to our ancestors, as well as to many in less favored lands today. Our life expectancies are more than twice as long as those of people in pre-industrial times. Many diseases, once scourges, have nearly disappeared or been reduced to nuisances. Our homes are warmed and cooled to our convenience, illuminated at a touch, and filled with comforts and entertainments that past royalty would have envied. The world’s events are daily streamed into our parlors and workplaces, and we call, text, or twitter around the globe. We can travel faster than the speed of sound, journeying in hours over thousands of miles. And we can speak our minds freely, worship freely, and freely choose the people who govern us. Compared to the historic human condition, this is nothing short of magical and in its complete development very recent.

What has produced it? Well, although it has roots in many cultures, its full flowering through modern science, technology, the international market economy, intellectual and religious freedom, and constitutional government, occurred in the West. It is the product of Western civilization – the civilization of Europe, the Americas and their outliers – though now joined with enthusiasm by the people of the entire world who are further enriching it with their own distinctive contributions.

But its astounding qualities suggest that it is also best regarded as anomalous and potentially fragile, as something that despite our complacency about it, we could easily lose, finding ourselves again back in the world of our ancestors, in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” And where might the chief danger of losing it come from? I would think from ignorance, from not comprehending its defining institutions, principles, ethical systems, and beliefs, in a word, its uniqueness, and how this uniqueness arose.

We’re not born with such knowledge. It is the responsibility of our educators to provide us with it. And since many of the questions pertaining to the nature and origins of Western civilization are complex, our universities should be much involved in this process, especially when it comes to the education of future leaders. Unfortunately, it is not a responsibility that, in my opinion, they are now adequately discharging.

In fact, Western civilization has become something of a neglected stepchild within American higher education. One indicator of this is the number of American universities and colleges that offer majors entitled “Western civilization.” Peterson’s Guide, considered an authoritative inventory of academic programming in the United States, identifies only eight schools that do so. This is less than the eleven that offer majors in Mortuary Science, or the twenty with majors in Equestrian Studies. Perhaps we’ve reached the point where, educationally speaking, we’re better prepared to bury Western civilization than to praise it, or at least to see it ride off into the sunset.

(Footnote: These numbers are based on the responses given by university and college officials to Peterson’s questionnaires. Having checked the websites of the institutions identified, I suspect that “eight” actually exaggerates the number of Western civilization majors. An embarrassment factor may be leading a few university officials to stretch a point. On the other hand, I can attest that all the eleven mortuary science majors are very much alive and well.)

Programs organized around more specialized types of interdisciplinary themes are present in abundance. Peterson’s lists 249 women’s studies majors, 38 peace studies/conflict resolution majors, 234 ethnic studies majors of various kinds, and 37 cultural studies majors. We recognize a need to know about the trees but, apparently, not the forest.

Peterson’s also lists a large number of majors on other civilizations. Under the heading “area studies,” for instance, we find 120 majors offered in Asian Studies, 77 in East Asian Studies, and 34 in Middle Eastern Studies. But how well can we understand other civilizations if we don’t first understand our own?

There are, to be sure, 63 majors in “European Studies,” and though a concern with civilization isn’t absent from these, they tend to have a contemporary focus, or examine specialized aspects of European history, anthropology, sociology, film, and culture. There are also 231 majors in “American Studies” (six at public institutions in Texas), but these are mainly concerned with specialized themes, popular culture, and issues of inequality.

More importantly, there are several Great Books majors, which don’t use the term Western civilization, but come close to embodying it, one at Baylor, for instance, another at Notre Dame, and another at WesternKentuckyState, a Historically Black University. In addition, there is a scattering of small colleges whose entire curriculum is Great Books, and a number with general education requirements that have substantial great books components – the University of Dallas comes to mind here in Texas, ColumbiaUniversity and the University of Chicago nationwide. Scott Lee, the executive director of the American Association for Core texts and Courses estimates that there are 300 Great Books programs in some shape or form, among the 4,140 higher education institutions nationwide, that is to say at less than 10%. Finally, there are still a few institutions that require all undergraduates to complete a Western civilization survey course or sequence – though none among the public institutions of Texas whose curriculum requirements are generally more specific than, and superior to, those of peer institutions elsewhere.

One question that sometimes arises when the meager number of programs in Western civilization is pointed out is why they are needed at all? Isn’t Western civilization already represented throughout the curriculum in specific courses on American and European history, literature, philosophy, culture, economics and politics, even in courses about science, accountancy, and public law, which are all institutions Western in origin?

I think there is an obvious answer to this question, one which the proponents of other forms of themed programming of the kinds I’ve mentioned would appreciate.

In order to understand a complex phenomenon you have to look at the whole as well as the parts. Medical specialists may concentrate on a particular organ, but they also have to understand how the body works as a system, as well as how it grows, matures, and ages, if they’re to succeed as practitioners.

The same applies to civilizations and to great national cultures like our own. They’re not, of course, monoliths. The West and America are vibrant in their pluralism, but they do have defining characteristics that emerged out of their distinct histories, and religious and philosophic provenances. For instance, in the case of Western civilization, one of these has been the belief in a single God possessed of a moral, historical, and redemptive purpose. That belief has affected every aspect of Western life, and has been turned, sometimes even perverted, to serve all sorts of political and cultural uses – often by Westerners who otherwise repudiated the Judeo-Christian heritage. Karl Marx, for example, was an atheist, but his view of history pointed to a revolutionary Armageddon, followed by humanity’s redemption, and finally a heaven-on-earth. That wasn’t an accident. You can’t properly understand Marxism, Communism, and other very secular movements, unless you recognize them as variations of long-standing themes within Western thought, of the Western outlook as a whole.

It’s also sometimes said that Western civilization is only a parochial interest and that for many American students it’s not their ancestral civilization. To which I think the answer should be: Western civilization with its signature institutions of constitutional government, market economics, modern science and technology, and an ethical system based on individual rights, has come as close to being a global civilization as any civilization ever has. We are all part of it, whatever our background and wherever in the world we live. We may be critical of it. We may not like all of it. We may wish to change it fundamentally, but to do any of these things intelligently we need to know what it is.

What can the legislature appropriately do to encourage the development of Western civilization and related forms of programming among the public universities of Texas?

First, the legislature can openly express its encouragement. If some financial support could also be provided, all-the-better, but even if budgetary circumstances don’t permit it, a resolution that such programming should be considered part of the institutional mission of Texas’ public universities would be desirable. That kind of affirmation would add legitimacy to new program proposals that might be advanced by faculty members and administrators, and give universities a better handle for raising money for them from private sources.

Second, the legislature can indicate that it will periodically request information as to the progress being made within each system, and institution, toward the development of Western civilization/Great Books programming. This will enhance the internal leverage of academic leaders who wish to move in that direction.

Third, it can consider adding to the state’s general education standards a Western civilization/Great Books requirement for all public university undergraduates, or, short of that, require that each institution allow faculty members to create such an option for students who wish to satisfy their humanities requirement in that way. This probably could be done at little or no extra expense to the institutions concerned.

I don’t think that the legislature should prescribe the specific content of courses, or what interpretations should be made of subject matter. These are rightfully part of the academic freedom of the faculty members in charge. But I think there is a genuine public interest concern in what subjects are taught, making the legislative encouragement of Western civilization programs entirely legitimate. The future of our civilization requires that students, at least some of them, understand what it comprises and how it emerged. That is why a revival of the study of Western civilization is so important, and why Texas should take the lead in making it happen.

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