Trustees | Western Civilization

Who’s Afraid Of Western Civ?

FORBES   |  March 13, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff

The advancement of empirical science, the Industrial Revolution, and then the technological revolution, the development of representative government, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo’s David and Da Vinci’s masterpieces. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin. It’s been a rather remarkable run.  

And how remarkable that this engine of human progress seems strangely to be faltering. Seventy-one years ago, French novelist, art theorist, and Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux famously noted, “Western civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials.” One cannot help but wonder what he would think now, observing how our campuses treat the study of Western Civilization. We are witnessing a self-wounding nihilism.

By 2011, none of the 50 top U.S. universities required Western Civilization, and 34 didn’t even offer the course. Nationwide, only 17% of colleges require Western Civ, and only 18% require American history or government. And, most recently, Yale University took its famed “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” off-line, responding, as the school paper reported, to “student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon.’”

It has become an ugly “them and us” on campus. If you believe that studying the forces that shaped modern theories of government, science, and aesthetics should be a priority for us who inherited this legacy, you might even be charged with the reflexive, career-breaking “-ist” labels: racist, classist, sexist. And more.  

Witness the gyrations over a new college entrance exam, an alternative to the SAT and ACT that draws heavily from the Great Books, called the Classic Learning Test (CLT). (Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of the CLT’s board.) When trade journal Inside Higher Ed released an article on the CLT, it created a firestorm of online attacks. For example, one reader commented: “I think by emphasizing “Western Cannon (sic)” this white conservative/ reactionary crowd is exactly who they are marketing it to…” 

“White conservative/reactionary crowd”? W.E.B. Du Bois would take exception. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Even amidst the grim racism of 1903, Du Bois saw the legacy of Western Civilization as a heritage common to all, rather than a barrier to the progress of African Americans.

So, pray tell, what is there to fear? How well I recall the furious response of the University of Colorado–Boulder provost to my offer as academic vice president of a fully-funded freshman faculty orientation program with readings ranging from Plato to Publius to Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King: “I thought you weren’t going to cram Western Civilization down our throats.” Equally tragicomic was the chancellor of another University of Colorado campus who simply scorned the program as “Dead White Males.”

On some campuses, the campaign to eliminate Western Civilization seems more like a “canceling” (to use the term now in vogue) rather than an attempt to add new texts to the discussion. In 2017–18, Reed College overhauled its signature freshman seminar, a storied course focused on the classics, due to student complaints of Eurocentrism. “Reedies Against Racism,” a student group at Reed College, made the ludicrous demand that the Humanities 110 course jettison all Euro texts as “reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people.” They haven’t (so far) gotten all they want, but ancient Greece is now only one of four modules, sharing the stage with three others: Egyptians, Israelites, and Achaemenids; Tenochtitlan; and Harlem. 

More than 30 years ago, Jesse Jackson led the Stanford University protests with the cry, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.” It quickly became apparent that the movement against Western Civilization was more ideological than pedagogical: Studying Western Civilization came to represent Western supremacy, colonialism, and racism to its opponents, rather than the academic study of the nations, cultures, and peoples that contributed so heavily to the world we live in.

In Stanley Kurtz’s new book, The Lost History of Western Civilization, we find the sad epilogue to the story of Stanford’s defenestration of its Western Civilization course: “Few junior faculty volunteered to teach Stanford’s multiculturalist substitute for Western Civ. The content of the course remained scattered and incoherent; student interest was low; and the substitute requirement was eventually canceled as a result.”

Thus, the dissolution of Western Civilization has left a vacuum in the curriculum. Western Civ was once used to tie other disciplines together, to supply a forum for discussion of the Big Questions, and to provide students with a sense of purpose. It has debate and controversy hardwired throughout. It is the cradle of the critical thinking that employers value. What system aids human flourishing? Hobbes said monarchy, John Locke said consent of the governed, Rousseau pulled toward the state of nature. Western Civilization is the culture of dialectic, not the culture of conformity. By joining that great debate, students become part of an ongoing conversation about matters at the core of human experience.

Cicero wrote, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.” The good news is that there are bright spots in the higher education landscape. Some colleges and universities—St. John’s, Thomas Aquinas, Columbia, Hamden-Sydney, among others—have made understanding the Western tradition a signature of undergraduate education. And in the world of K-12, the fact that the Institute for Classical Education has a network of more than 550 elementary and secondary schools representing tens of thousands of parents is witness to a hunger to study, interrogate, and understand our origins. Especially now, in an era of turmoil and dissonance, the opportunity for students to sharpen their sense of wonder, as well as their critical faculties, as they explore the birthright of the place and time in history that we inhabit, deserves, at very least, a place in the course catalog of every college and university worthy of the name.


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