Archive for August 8th, 2009

8th August
written by simplelight

While I was at Stanford in 1998 I took a course called “The Making of the Western Mind”. It was the first time the course was offered at Stanford and the new course had been approved only after the professor secured the support of the provost at the time, Condoleeza Rice. It was offered to both undergraduates and graduates and attracted students from the Stanford law school, the business school, and the graduate engineering programs.

It was one of the best courses I ever took at Stanford and received the highest student ratings ever in the Stanford humanities department. It was fortunate I took the course when I did because it was the only time it was ever offered as it was discontinued immediately.

I was not surprised then, to read another account of the suppression of western civiliation study in American universities:

For six years, I [Robert Koons, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin] was involved in efforts at the University of Texas at Austin to create a program in Western Civilization and American Institutions. Our vision was to offer to all undergraduates a sequence of Great Books seminars, beginning with the Bible and the works of ancient Greece and Rome, and culminating with the classics of the American founding. We sought approval of a certificate through which students could satisfy eighteen of their forty-two hours of general education requirements.

We made considerable progress. Perhaps as a result of that progress, we faced opposition from the major humanities programs (especially English, history, American studies, and religious studies), beginning in the spring of 2007. A New York Times article on September 22, 2008, “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses,” accelerated and consolidated that opposition, because it included our program and a quotation from me.

So, even though we secured a “concentration” for our program (a step below but toward a major), introduced a new field of study on campus, raised over $1 million, and hired four postdoctoral teaching fellows, the life of the program was brief.

In November of last year, I was dismissed as director, and in the spring the administration and faculty replaced our program with one on Core Texts and Ideas. The new program lacks any list or criteria for “core texts,” and the goal of a required sequence of courses has vanished.

Our program was rightly perceived as a threat to the monopoly of what I call the Uncurriculum, which prevails at UT and at most universities today. It is the absence of required courses and of any structure or order to liberal studies. The Uncurriculum dictates that students accumulate courses that meet a “distribution” standard—a smattering of courses scattered among many categories. Even within majors, the trend has been to eliminate required sequences.

The perfecting of the intellect and the formation of character through the attainment of what John Henry Newman called “liberal knowledge” have given way to engorgement with miscellaneous information. The suggestion that higher education should have something to do with acquiring moral wisdom is invariably met with the sophomoric query, “Whose ethics?” As Anthony Kronman has so well documented in his book The End of Education, nothing in the Uncurriculum encourages students to think through the great questions of life in a systematic manner, with the great minds of the Western tradition as their guides and interlocutors.

The Uncurriculum free-for-all gives undergraduates only the illusion of choice. In reality, the Uncurriculum model is entwined with the interests of the professoriate. If there are no courses students are required to take, there are no courses that professors are required to teach. []

There was an interesting comment from a member of the faculty steering committee regarding the naming of the new center:

Tom Pangle emphasized that the proposed name of the new school was a major source of his objections to the school per se. As he told a Daily Texan reporter, these, these words, American, Western, and Civilization were just too “right-wing.”

If the words ‘American’, ‘Western’, and ‘Civilization’ are now right-wing (!) then what constitutes the left-wing these days?