In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 1: Western Civilization and Higher Education

“One of the chief defects of modern education has been its failure to find an adequate method for the study of our own civilization.”1 So wrote Christopher Dawson in 1961, almost precisely at the inception of the trends in thought about education and culture which would not only further exacerbate this pre-existing problem but, in an attempt to pretend that the problem did not exist at all, would ignore it altogether, thus allowing a minor illness to ripen into a full-blown plague. While Dawson sought to reform the way in which the study of Western Civilization was approached in schools, he could still, in 1961, take it for granted that all primary and secondary school students in the United States would be inducted into the history, thought, and culture of Western Civilization. He could still, at that time, assume that all American college undergraduates would be required to take at least a course in Western Civilization and would be exposed through other classes to the great literary, artistic, philosophical, scientific, and other products of that culture, which is, in fact, their culture. In the same paragraph, Dawson laments the dominance in educational institutions of the twin forces of “the democratic utilitarianism of compulsory state education, on the one hand, and … scientific specialization, on the other.”2 These two forces have continued to dominate American education in the more than half a century since Dawson wrote his Crisis of Western Education. The result has been that the crisis has reached such proportions that each new graduating class of students is further restricted within a field of technical specialization and further alienated from their heritage as the children of Western Civilization and citizens of the United States.

In colleges throughout the United States, courses in Western Civilization, once required for majors in all areas of study, have not only ceased to exist as a requirement but have ceased to exist altogether. In a study published in May 2011, the National Association of Scholars documented the decline of Western Civilization courses in American colleges beginning in 1964.3 They found that throughout both public and private institutions of higher learning across the United States, including top-ranked universities, a survey course in Western Civilization has all but gone extinct as a requirement for undergraduates. Very few even require such a course for students majoring in history. Instead, the trend has been to replace the study of Western Civilization with a class dedicated to a more general study of world history, downplaying the importance of Western Civilization and downgrading it to the status of just one civilization among many.

When universities do choose to teach their students about Western Civilization, it generally comes packaged with vitriolic criticism. While Harvard University offers no introductory course in Western Civilization to its undergraduates, for example, it does offer a graduate course targeted to its teaching fellows whose title is “Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy.” The description of the course from Harvard’s course catalogue states its purpose without equivocation:

The purpose of this graduate seminar is to get Teaching Fellows and other graduates to engage with the historiographical and pedagogical challenges of the General Education course, Societies of the World 19: Western Ascendancy. Courses in Western Civilization are nowadays widely seen as outmoded and excessively Eurocentric. The aim of SW 19 is to address questions of global economic and political divergence in a fresh way, taking advantage of more recent literature on economic history, for example.4

The trend in favor of the degradation of Western Civilization has penetrated academia so deeply that those institutions which have resisted the trend have become the targets of governmental organizations dedicated to enforcing educational homogeneity. Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan, for example, has documented his institution’s struggle against government agencies tasked with the imposition of conformity to current trends his book Liberty and Learning. One example he provides concerns the Michigan Department of Education’s criticism of Hillsdale’s stated mission to act as “a trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual heritage from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”5 The Michigan Department of Education insisted, with the threat that it would refuse to issue teaching certifications to graduates of Hillsdale, that Hillsdale College reform its introductory courses in Western Civilization, which Hillsdale requires for all undergraduates in any major, so that the “intent is to point out the limitation to Western culture.”6 The Department asserted, in addition, that “the Hillsdale program, based on the principles of Western culture, does not incorporate global perspectives by design. It is unclear how to resolve this weakness.”7 In other words, Hillsdale College’s focus “on the principles of Western culture” is, in the eyes of the state of Michigan, a “weakness” that must be “resolve[d]” in order to incorporate a more multicultural approach, to the detriment of both Western Civilization as a course of study and to the detriment of the students who are receiving this education.



1 Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 119.

2 Ibid.

3 Glenn Ricketts, Peter W. Wood, Stephen H. Balch, and Ashely Thorne, “The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum,” National Association of Scholars (May 2011)

4 “History 2921 – Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy: Seminar,” Harvard University Course Catalogue: 2013-2014.

5 Larry P. Arnn, Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education (Hillsdale: Hillsdale College Press, 2010), 53.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

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