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Defending Western Civ: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Course

Eva-Maria Swidler

    World History Connected's recent issue on world history textbooks and teaching world history brought to the fore yet again the ongoing conversation in these pages and among historians in general about the relative usefulness and legitimacy of general education courses in Western Civilization and world history. Eckhardt Fuchs and Karen Oslund, in their guest editorial in the July issue, pointed out that Gilbert Allardyce characterized the Western Civ course as "one of the great success stories in the history of the historical profession in America." Not cited in that editorial, however, was a line from Allardyce's final paragraph: "Most historians have long concluded that the world has outgrown the old Western Civ ideas." Yet 25 years after the publication of this quote in Allardyce's American Historical Review article in 1982, it is clear from the pages of WHC that the course and the debates over it are not outgrown but on the contrary are quite alive. 1
    As an environmental and world historian who trained at a large Eastern university, the vitality of Western Civ as a paradigm took me by surprise when I entered the teaching circuit. For the last couple of years, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about an issue that I didn't actually realize was still salient when I was in graduate school. I have come to the conclusion that although the gen ed courses are the bread-and-butter of historians rather than being the courses they truly long to teach, (The Political Economy of Agriculture and the Environment, anyone?), the way these required classes are taught are more important than just about anything else we do.
    After a bit of investigation on this debate, I realized that so much has been written and said on the matter that at first I wondered whether anything I might say would simply be re-treading old ground. Yet, perhaps as a benefit of being a relative newcomer to the issue, I have identified several issues that seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Indeed, while it is striking that the debate is as alive as ever thirty years or more after it began, at least as striking is what the debate fails to address.
    In the world of pedagogy, educational policy, university requirements, and general education curricula, I believe that the real heart of the disagreement is often sidestepped. World historians these days tend to treat the tension between Western Civ and world history as a question of the extent to which European and US history should form part of a world history survey. For example, should the pages of a textbook devoted to what we might call Greater Europe be proportional to population? Or should it be argued that students are members of that Greater Europe and deserve a closer look at their own society's role in the world? Or, might we claim that Europe has had a disproportionate impact on the modern world and thus merits more coverage? Alternatively, and much more simplistically, the paradigmatic chasm between Western Civ and world history is sometimes reduced to nothing more than a characterization of how favorably various nations or regions are treated. In short, all too often the competing narratives of Western Civ and world history are treated as though the serious theoretical issues at hand are merely a question of scope or of cultural preference. 4
    It is interesting that 25 years ago it seemed self-evident to Allardyce that Western Civ was in its death throes. (After all, he entitled his article "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course.") And Gary Nash et. al., in History On Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, wrote that by the late 1980's even in high schools the trickle-down from higher ed's changes meant that "the Western Civ textbook was a curricular relic." Yet as Fuchs and Oslund point out in their World History Connected editorial, half of the universities in the United States continue to offer Western Civ courses in 2001.
    We have to wonder, then, were Allardyce and Nash totally off the mark in their assessment of professional consensus or have historians (or indeed the discipline of history) changed so much in the last two decades that this supposedly inevitable demise was derailed? The flurry of articles cited in exchanges and ruminations in this journal certainly indicate that historians themselves were at least some of the defenders of the Western Civ paradigm. But perhaps there is a larger message here. Perhaps, as in so many other instances, we should reflect that the academy is not always the cultural pacesetter that it would like to think itself, but rather is fashioned and constrained by larger cultural forces despite the efforts of academics. And in light of, for instance, the Florida legislature's recent mandating of school history content, clearly Nash's optimism that "Americans are liberating themselves from the notion that history is an agreed-upon set of facts and a forever fixed story" was misplaced. 6
    So I began looking past professional historians for the source of the robustness of the Western Civ paradigm. Once I started looking and reflecting, it in fact became clear to me that the model of history which Western Civ represents holds far more sway than even those 2001 course statistics would lead us to believe. Many universities' course catalogues don't list Western Civ in their course offerings, yet in effect continue not only to teach it but to require it. At one university I know of, for instance, whose history department long ago deleted Western Civ from its offerings, all freshmen are required to take a two semester sequence from an independent humanities department, covering 'the greatest thinkers' in the world, with readings from the ancient, medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern periods, and featuring such themes as "Visions of Freedom." At another school, which has not taught Western Civ in its history department for decades, there is a required two semester sequence, again centered in an independent humanities department, featuring the usual Western Civ original texts augmented with a few readings from the Koran and other Great Books. My friend who is on the faculty of such a department tells me that those in the trade refer, in fact, to 'Great Books Classes' as a category found widely across many colleges and universities. 7
    In short, the concept of Western Civ is thriving wildly in the academy, as is the assumption that 'learning it' is foundational to a college education. In those places where historians have successfully challenged its sway, the course has merely been pushed out of history departments. Having moved from history departments to the more general category of humanities, the faculty teaching these gen ed requirements are most often drawn from those trained in philosophy, classics, theology, literature, political science, sociology, anthropology, and even chemistry and biology. In fact, they come from just about anywhere but history departments. 8
    Which brings us to an important point. Obviously, after decades, we historians still disagree, sometimes fundamentally and even violently, about whether Western Civ exists at all, what it might be, and whether and how it should be taught. But by treating this disagreement as nothing more than a decision of whether to teach Western Civ or world history, we are in many ways missing the boat. Firstly, Western Civ IS being taught, even in places which have world history as the history department's foundational course. Secondly, whatever historians' positions on the arguments over Western Civ, as historians we know that there ARE arguments, and that they are significant, legitimate and important. By moving Western Civ out of history's orbit, these arguments have been elided. 9
    Clearly the concept of Western Civ lives on not only in institutions of higher learning but in the public discourse. To judge by the reactions of my Western Civ students, and by the course descriptions of 'Great Books' classes, history's challenges and debates are absolutely unknown in the world outside academe and perhaps only marginally in the academic world outside history. Total incomprehension and incredulity would not over-describe students' responses to even the raising of the possibility that 'the West' might be a historically particular and produced idea, or that Western Civ might better qualify as heritage than as history, to use David Loewenthal's formulation. 10
    It's probably clear by now that I come from a world history training which was anti-Eurocentric almost by default. When I was first asked to teach Western Civ a couple of years ago, I started with an assumption of the irrelevance and dated nature of the course. I thought I'd try to figure out how to teach a European social history class and call it Western Civ. But as I looked through the departmental guidelines on Western Civ content, I realized not only how different from European history Western Civ really is, but how intensely relevant to mainstream discourse the concepts of Western Civ are. The experience of my first semester teaching the class only confirmed and deepened this realization; the depth of students' commitments to the most traditional of Western Civ's cultural ideas was both very strong as well as naive and chauvinistic. 11
    Western Civ in all its guises, whether taught by historians or by independent humanities programs, talks explicitly about scientific thinking and rationality, about democracy and individual liberties, about progress. But as historians we know that platitudes are not history. We must bring to bear the critical insights on these themes that history can offer: the questioning of absolute objectivity, the historical construction of knowledge, the socially determined construction of the self that varies so widely across space and time, the manifold ways beyond the modern liberal democracy that the world has seen for people to participate in political decision making. Whether you're a proponent of Western Civ or of world history, and whether or not you'd agree with the revisionists about democracy or freedom, no historian can be content with the naivete of Western Civ as taught in its humanities reincarnations. 12
    And here is where I started to learn to love the course. From a total rejection of the proposition that Western Civ should be a foundational part of a college education, instead acknowledging the sway of Western Civ over public discourse has led me to believe that addressing all of the components of a traditional Western Civ curriculum head on, as only historians can do, is the only way students can clear their intellectual way to begin to meaningfully learn world history. 13
   The Western Civ gen ed course may be the only history class that many business, nursing, criminal justice or engineering students will ever have. Knowing that in teaching it I possibly held history's one chance with these students in my hands, I began to think long and hard about what I hoped they would get from my class. 14
    Perusing Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past helped me realize that I wanted my students to see history as a methodology, an interpretive approach, a way of understanding the present. I wanted my students to learn and practice skills that could be used for a lifetime; teaching them a particular storyline, even if it were the narrative that I myself endorsed, would only leave them vulnerable to the next convincing speaker to come along. In short, I wanted to teach them critical thinking and historical perspective. And much to my initial surprise, I found the Western Civ course to be an ideal vehicle. Not only could we talk about every aspect of historical and critical thinking, but we could exercise those thinking skills on the most cherished and important myths of our society--myths which, in fact, prevented students from seeing and appreciating the historicity of their own worlds or of the rest of the world.(And along with those traditional themes of Wester Civ, I add a few others that consternate students as well, such as the myth of the modern Western woman as the pinnacle of feminine freedom, and the modern Western invention of the category of race.) 15
    But it's all well and good to say that we want advanced students to think historiographically and critically about storyline and text, and another thing entirely to find a way to do this with students who have little to no background (not to mention interest) not just in history but in any of the liberal arts. Neither Western Civ nor world history textbooks discuss historiography or locate their own approach in any meaningful way. There are a few reviews of historiographical theory, such as The Houses of History, but since they are aimed at history students or practicing historians, they take for granted the idea that all historians operate from paradigms: exactly the point which so stuns my students and which we must labor over. 16
    I found it significant that Eric Martin, in "The Problem With Any World History Textbook", says that in trying to teach world history critically he finds his most useful book to be James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. The subtitle of Loewen's book is Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Similarly, Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays in American Memory might conceivably be approachable by the gen ed student, but again U.S. history is his target. 17
    When we turn to Western Civ for the same type of historiographical readings, we find for instance Enduring Western Civilization edited by Silvia Federici, or Learning To Divide the World by John Willinsky. Both are highly thought provoking for academics, but at the same time are totally inaccessible for my 18 year old pharmaceutical marketing majors. Or we find James Blaut's incisive Eight Eurocentric Historians, focusing sequentially on a series of important historians... that students have never heard of. Tom Patterson's account of the rise of the concept of 'civilization,' Inventing Western Civilization, is readable but never addresses historical paradigms. 18
    So we struggle with our readings, and deal with resentment over what students frequently feel is my unnecessary complication of what is surely after all a very simple and straightforward story that everyone knows. My syllabus is certainly a work in progress. But I have found that the closer I hew to the most traditional ideas in the Western Civ guidelines, the more relevance I find to students' commonsense vision of the world. We discuss 'modernity' and 'traditional societies," science and rationality vs. superstition, democracy and individualism and human rights and the UN. In short, we talk about Us and Them. Are We really what We think We are? And are They really what We claim They are? What does it mean to divide the world in this way? And is this division really a historical 'fact,' or a cultural creation?   19
    In fact, I often find that my Western Civ class connects more to my students' thinking and lives than my world history class. Even though the world history class I designed also tries to focus on historiography and critical analytical skills, tackling the Western Civ bull by the horns has proven far more thought-stimulating to the students than world history. The elephant in the living room needs to be named. Susanna Calkins' important suggestion that 'countering the hidden curriculum' should be one of a handful of guiding principles in designing a world history course seems to me to be a suggestion which merits a course of its own: viz., Western Civ. Rather than confining a discussion to the more limited questions of maps or problems of periodization she discusses, why not display and dissect all aspects of the 'hidden curriculum' explicitly, for all to view?   20
    And what of 'content' in all this? Well, yes, that gets covered too, though sometimes by default. Firstly, many of the readings we use to discuss different approaches to history contain some reference to historical events. And after wrestling with the abstract, we look at concrete examples of alternative paradigms. In trying to imagine how an alternate history would look, and in working on identifying alternate assumptions and paradigms in practice, we read about the past: in John Hobson's The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, or in Maria Mies' feminist classic Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. Even Amin Maalouf's novel Leo Africanus can be read both for its theoretically provocative alternate perceptions of the relationship of the Arab world to Europe and its implicit critique of Europe's self-image, as well as for an awful lot of concrete stuff about the Mediterranean world around 1500. So along the way my students read and learn a narrative different from what they know, but more importantly they learn tools for imagining versions and critiquing things as yet unread. 21
    As Peter Seixas says in his essay "Schweigen! Die Kinder! Or, Does Postmodern History Have a Place in the Schools?", postmodernism has its own pitfalls, not only for professional historians but for tender students as well. Sometimes I wonder, am I unwittingly furthering a fundamental relativism or cynicism? I try in class to discuss the evaluation of competing narratives. I ask students to consider how they might evaluate the validity or usefulness of different paradigms. I offer moral vision, inclusiveness, and a preference for possibilism rather than determinism as standards which many historians use, as well as emphasizing that students should deduce and agree with any assumptions or principles, about say human nature or the logical structure of arguments. After an unfortunate experience in my first semester of teaching, where I left this part of the conversation till the end and found to my horror that many students had interpreted me as a postmodern moral relativist, I am trying to introduce this element earlier and earlier in the semester. I continue to be surprised at how hard it is to get students to make an evaluation; avoiding taking any stand by marking out some kind of fuzzy the-truth-always-lies-in-the-middle is the universal first choice. 22
    So is my approach to Western Civ successful? Not putting too much stock in the usefulness of student evaluations, the jury is still out. I will probably not know for another ten years or so, until I encounter some former students who are in their next phase of life. The student evaluations complain of too much reading and too much writing. Some risk management majors would clearly prefer to have had a Western Civ textbook with multiple choice questions. But at the risk of sounding patronizing, students don't always want what's good for them.   23
    The question also arises of how a critical thinking approach to Western Civ will be received by the powers that be in educational administration. After all, we've just noted that when history departments have deconstructed or rejected the Western Civ paradigm, colleges and universities have very often responded on the highest levels by simply relocating the course elsewhere. I do believe that, even if we are swimming against a larger mainstream by taking a historical and analytical approach to the gen ed curriculum, there are a number of strong and strategic points to be made in favor of history's jurisdiction over the course. Firstly, there remains a certain public respect for the idea of multicultural education, however it is actually implemented, and a critical discussion of Western Civ can legitimately locate itself in this discourse. Not just world history but Western Civ, too, can become a "meaningful diversity requirement." Another arena of discussion and great concern on both the secondary and higher education levels revolves around critical thinking skills. Western Civ taught in a historicized way is clearly also critical thinking at its most sophisticated and useful, and can fairly present itself as such. But to accomplish any of the important tasks that it has the potential to do, and to do so very effectively, Western Civ needs to come home to where it belongs: history departments. 24
    Even if we are able to position ourselves to teach the gen ed classes, and to teach them in this way, will students learn what we hope we are teaching if they just don't want to hear it? Probably not. Yet one of the most consistent comments I get from all kinds of students is "Why didn't anybody ever tell us this? Why did our teachers treat history as a bunch of facts to memorize? Why haven't I ever heard any of this before?" Students are mad. They DO feel lied to. They don't feel lied to because of any new fact they learned in my class, and they don't feel lied to because they necessarily agree with the narrative which I propose to them as an alternative to Western Civ. They feel lied to because they were never let in on what has become a state secret: that history is a debate and an argument. They take this lie of omission very personally.   25
    Thus, over the last couple of years I have come to believe that the venue of Western Civ as taught by a historian lets us speak most directly to the myths we live by, speaks to the understanding of the world that students bring to the newspaper (if they ever read one) or to the television news and the movies. Most of the students at my school are pretty typical of students in 2006 in that they are not very interested in social change or activism, yet many respond to and wrestle with the concepts of critical reading almost despite themselves. What I hope for are more frequent repetitions of a complaining answer I got to the course evaluation question "What did you like LEAST about this course?": "I have never thought so much in one course. (But thank you!!)"   26
Biographical Note: Eva Swidler teaches Western Civ , world history and environmental history at Villanova and St. Joseph's Universities in greater Philadelphia. She can be contacted at  




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