April 9, 2002

Western Civ sequence to decline

The three-quarter History of Western Civilization common core sequence, a nearly 60-year-old legacy in the College, will undergo significant changes this fall. In response to declining enrollment in the full three quarters of the program, professors in the history department have decided to switch the majority of Western Civilization sequences to a two-quarter European Civilization program.

"The change was made to take account of the fact that the College requirement for the core is an 'either or' requirement of two Humanities, three Civ or three Humanities and two Civ," said Rachel Fulton, assistant professor in the history department and chair of the Western Civilization program. "This change will make the options a bit more flexible."

The new European Civilization sequence will cut the material on late antiquity and early Christianity and instead begin with the Middle Ages and continue to the twentieth century. An optional third quarter, still under development, will focus on specific issues from the sequence. "The third quarter will be special courses in intensified study of a subject that has been covered in the Civ course, or, alternately, a course in late antiquity," Fulton said.

Two sections of the traditional three-quarter Western Civilization will be offered, taught by lecturer in the Social Science Collegiate Division Katy O'Brien Weintraub and Thomas E. Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Karl J. Weintraub.

Students who wish to study material comparable to the traditional Western Civ program will have the option of taking an additional two-quarter sequence. "If students are concerned about having a full-scale equivalent to Western Civ, there is a two-quarter Ancient Mediterranean sequence and the courses will be scheduled in a way to allow students to take both Mediterranean and European. Those who are interested can take, effectively, four quarters," Fulton said.

The initiative to create a two-quarter variation of Western Civilization has been under development for several years. "[European Civ] is an outgrowth of curriculum reform that was passed in 1998," said John Boyer, dean of the College. "After that was passed, the historians began to have some conversations about developing a two-quarter course. A group of faculty met together all of last year to develop the new course. There is a great deal of intellectual excitement on the part of the faculty."

The switch was made, however, with a measure of debate. During the last half-century, the Western Civilization sequence has become an important part of the core as it was originally conceived. As a course, it is vast in both scope and depth, with an aim to instruct through close examination and study of primary texts in small discussion-based classes. "Its 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," states Readings in Western Civilization, the University-developed series of books used in the course.

To shorten the sequence, some argue, would entail straying from the program's original purpose.

"My prediction is that they will move much more in direction of a political history of Europe rather than take seriously the proposition of how does one teach something as complicated as a civilization," Karl Weintraub said.

In an effort to raise awareness in the University community about the changes to the Western Civ program, several students are attempting to resurrect Education First, a Recognized Student Organization (RSO) created during the protests of curriculum reform in 1998. While waiting for a response to their RSO application, the students are planning an informal campaign to educate the student body about the loss of Western Civ.

"We are just very upset that this decision has been made—this is a course that has been taught at the University since '48," said second-year in the College Sara Butler. "Professors have spent their lives teaching the course. This seems like a quiet, under-the-radar, kind of way of getting rid of it. It is just mind-boggling to me that this sort of change will be made with so little discussion."

Some of the students identify this course with the University's special character. "Courses like this are what make the U of C a unique school and a very good school and it would be a shame if it was lost—I don't know what other university would offer the same quality and substance," said second-year in the College Margaret Hughes.

In addition to reviving Education First, these students hope to open the discussion of changes to the entire student body. "We are hoping to get a student-wide referendum about Western Civ on the spring ballot," Butler said.

The decision to abandon the traditional first quarter material on antiquity and early Christianity has also aroused some debate. "I think it is problematic—teaching the Renaissance, the rebirth of classical culture, will be a little bit difficult if the student doesn't know what the rebirth is," Katy Weintraub said.

In 1946, a coalition of professors who felt the University lacked a substantive history course created the Western Civilization program. "Initially, there was no such thing as Western Civ in the Hutchins College. There was a need for something like a history course," Karl Weintraub said. "The Humanities staff insisted that it had to provide a background for humanities. It took five years before the course as it is was created. Initially, the Humanities department was supervising Western Civ."

From these uncertain beginnings, Western Civ developed into one of the most distinctive and popular courses taught at the University. "Western Civ, as a course, was not initially one of the important or highly valued courses. In the late '50s and '60s a change came—Western Civ became one of the most popular courses. It was taught by outstanding individuals. It was a world in which students were sleeping outside the Registrar to get into Western Civ," Karl Weintraub said.

From its inception, the Civilization sequences have been tailored to students who were typically required to take only a year of history. "If you have young people who only take one year of history, what history courses would be most useful to them?" Karl Weintraub said. "What is our obligation, as an institution, for people who aren't going to be experts in the material, but want to know something about the topic?"

In previous years, the University's core curriculum required students to enroll in three-quarter Civilization sequences. "It was a well-thought-out program, but the American world didn't go with that sort of program. The world changed," Karl Weintraub said. "You can't keep the same things going, except you can't get away from the fact that there is a thing such as civilization that shapes human beings. If you don't, you are living in the dark."

"The sequence seeks to orient [students] within the tradition in which they live," Katy Weintraub said.

The continued use of the nine-volume Readings in Western Civilization series, edited by faculty and published by University of Chicago Press, has been in question. The new European Civilization course will use the same series, but faculty will have the option, as they do now, to assign other texts as well.

"The faculty feel trapped, prisoners of the multicolored books. Some people don't use them and pick their own selections," Karl Weintraub said. "I would never have taught a course like this except that it is all original documents. When I teach the texts, I always find new and different things. I never get bored by it."

Of the 11 sections of Western Civilization currently offered, only two are taught by a single professor for all three quarters. While the Weintraubs will offer the only sections of Western Civ in the fall, if other professors are inclined to teach the sequence they will have the opportunity to do so. "I believe in Western Civ. I have been here for a long time—I came here as an undergrad, stayed as a graduate and stayed on to teach. This is a course that has really made a big difference in my life. I'm going to teach Western Civ for as long as they will let me," Katy Weintraub said.