Press Releases | General Education

“Do Not Drop Western Civilization,” Scholars Tell University of Chicago

May 1, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC—Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and other leading scholars who are alumni or former faculty of the University of Chicago today issued statements protesting the death of the university’s famous Western civilization course. They called upon the president and board of trustees to support and ensure the continuation of the course beyond the 2002-2003 academic year.

The year-long course, “The History of Western Civilization,” has been a keystone of the university’s celebrated core curriculum since 1948. In the 2002-2003 academic year, the course will be reduced to two sections taught by only two instructors, emeritus professor Karl Weintraub and his wife Katy O’Brien Weintraub. In its place, the history department plans to offer a course that runs only two quarters and eliminates the classical and Hebraic origins of Western civilization.

In addition to Bellow, the protesting Scholars include Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and Harvard social scientist David Riesman. They are leaders of a group formed in 1999 to protest changes to the core curriculum proposed at that time. Members of the Scholars follow.

“The unique mission of the University of Chicago has been to offer its students a rigorous and broad-based core curriculum that provides a detailed and intensive exposure to the highest achievements of human civilization,” said Bellow. “By replacing the traditional three-quarter course on the History of Western Civilization with narrower and briefer history courses, the University is succumbing to the mindless narrowing and specialization that has characterized other universities for decades.”

“The decision to eliminate the History of Western Civilization course strikes at the very core of the University of Chicago’s education¾ and seems particularly ill-advised at a time when the very underpinnings of civilized society are under attack,” said Glendon. “How can we expect the next generation to defend and support our society, if they do not understand the principles on which it was founded?”

According to materials published by the university, the purpose of the Western Civilization course is “to raise a whole set of complex conceptual questions regarding the nature of time and change and the intended and unintended consequences of human action and consciousness.”

Karl Weintraub, who is now the sole professor to offer the course, told the student newspaper that the curricular modifications would likely “[m]ove much more in the direction of a political history of Europe rather than take seriously the proposition of how does one teach something as complicated as a civilization.”

Although the university has suggested that other teachers are free to teach the traditional sequence, in recent years the university has not hired faculty to teach the course and there is no department or unit of the university committed to staffing the course.

The Scholars’ statements join a growing number of voices opposing the change. The College Council representing undergraduates unanimously passed a resolution urging the faculty to “reconsider the plan to phase out Western Civilization.” A student group, Education First, has protested the demise of the course as a hallmark of the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary courses based on great books, and students have obtained the signatures necessary to put the change to a referendum. Also opposing the change are the National Association of Scholars, alumni spearheaded by Robert Stone, and both student newspapers which have editorialized in favor of keeping the Western civilization sequence.

The Scholars’ statements were coordinated by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability.

Members of Scholars for the University of Chicago follow:

Saul Bellow, Nobel Laureate and University Professor, Boston University

Walter Berns, University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University

The Honorable Robert H. Bork, former judge and former Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Public Law, Yale Law School

John D. Fonte, independent scholar and former senior researcher, United States Department of Education

Michael Allen Gillespie, Professor of Political Science, Duke University

Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Robert Goldwin, former professor, Kenyon College

Paul Gronke, Associate Professor of Political Science, Duke University

Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of History, City University of New York

Charles Horner, former faculty member, International Institute of Strategic Studies and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service

Robert Lerner, former assistant professor, Syracuse University; faculty associate, Johns Hopkins University

Michael J. Malbin, Professor of Political Science, SUNY at Albany

Walter A. McDougall, Professor of History and International Relations, University of Pennsylvania

Althea K. Nagai, independent scholar and former Visiting Lecturer, Smith College

Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum

David Riesman, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard University

Stanley Rosen, Professor of Philosophy, Boston University

Robert B. Rosthal, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Eric Schopler, Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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