Save Western Civ

By The Maroon Staff

To the Editor:

Is the other shoe finally dropping?

Over the last several years, students, alumni, and faculty have raised their voices in protest over attempts by the University administration to further water down the course offerings and requirements that had continued to make undergraduate education at Chicago distinctive. Confronting parallel objections to assaults on the value of graduate education in the Divisions and on the place of communal and cooperative learning experiences such as those offered by the International House, an unpopular president was forced out and remaining deans and academic administrators pledged fealty to the Chicago ideal of liberal education. Soon thereafter, a new president arrived who expressed sentiments demonstrating apparent affection for those things that made Chicago unique.

Now The Maroon reports (“Western Civilization course to decline, fall,” by Vanessa Cordonnier, April 9) that the Western Civilization course, already discouraged by leaders of the College through a whole cornucopia of alternate offerings, is to be truncated if not abandoned outright. Once again, the voices of protest come first from the students, recognizing that they are being sold a bill of goods and actually desiring that the University show itself as standing for something other than an endless stream of elective courses. Once again, a small number of faculty members (to wit, in this case, two: Karl Joachim Weintraub and Katy O’Brien Weintraub, an emeritus professor and a lecturer, respectively) raise their voices. Their number should be offset, however, by the high quality of their observations, the eminence of their reputations, and the seriousness of their citizenship as both alumni and teachers.

The present dean of the College made a good part of his own considerable and deserved reputation as a practitioner and advocate of the teaching of Western Civilization as a three-quarter sequence. On a number of occasions, including remarks at the 15th and 20th anniversary dinners of the Class of 1981, which I attended, he has urged the alumni of the College to make their voices known to “the powers that be” about assaults on the integrity of a Chicago education.

I am sure that the late professor of history Eric Cochrane, with whom I had the privilege of taking Western Civ in the 1978-79 academic year, is spinning in his grave at Oak Woods Cemetery over the latest attacks on the course that he and his students loved so well and from which they gained so much. I am sure that he would have joined his own sharp pen and tongue to the more courtly, but tremendously perceptive and challenging, comments of Mr. Weintraub, who, along with Ms. Weintraub, will shoulder on—with all of us substantially in their debt.

What type of academic leadership would think that a course could be offered at The University of Chicago on Western Civilization that lops off the first third of the curriculum and with it the analysis of Greece and Rome, the rise of Christianity, the first recognition of and confrontations between the ideas of Church and State? When (and if) the students in this new pick-and-choose course get to Gibbon, will they even know to what set of circumstances he is referring? And, more difficult still, what type of argument could win the day with the kind of people who could make such a proposition?

One is tempted to wonder what the late Severn Darden and his colleagues in the original Second City would have made of this latest tragicomedy.

Andrew Patner, ’81

Member, Visiting Committee

The Department of Music