IMAGE:  October 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 1
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"…so one-sided it falls off my bookshelf."

Defending Western Civilization
The controversy over the Western Civilization course is an opportunity for serious educational discussion. As head of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which coordinated the statement by Saul Bellow, Mary Ann Glendon, David Riesman, and other distinguished scholars questioning the change, I was disappointed to see President Randel defend it with arguments that seem disingenuous and insulting ("From the President," June/02).

Defenders of the current Western Civilization course praise its scope from the Hebrews and Greeks to the recent past. The president responds that the combination of the two-quarter course, the Ancient Mediterranean World, and the new two-quarter European Civilization course (which begins with the Middle Ages) has similar scope.

He gives the misleading impression that students will be taking both courses. In fact, students can fully meet the civilization requirement by taking only one of the two courses. Few, if any, students will take both courses.

The president then proceeds to compare a commitment to the Western Civilization course with one's taste in popular music, which, he says, "ceases to change after one's early 20s," implying that critics of the change are oldsters beset with "nostalgia" (another of his epithets). This is an ill-disguised and somewhat misplaced ad hominem, since critics of the change include current students and faculty, not just alumni and academic senior statesmen.

His final argument seems to be that "things change": "Why should we wish to adhere eternally to narratives about our history written by some number of German or British writers of the 19th century?" That rhetorical question has about as much relevance as "Why should we continue to abide by a Bill of Rights written by former colonists distrustful of kings?" The fact that things change is not an argument for any particular change. Each proposed change must be defended on its merits.

In short, President Randel gives us no substantive reason to believe that a two-quarter sequence in which European civilization begins in the Middle Ages is superior to a course with the scope and substance of Western Civilization.

Jerry L. Martin, AM'66
Washington, D.C.

Pardon me for being slow, but President Don M. Randel's explanation for the changes in the course offerings did not make anything clear. He acknowledges that there has been a reduction in the number of sections to be offered in the three-quarter Western Civilizations sequence. He assures us that nevertheless the University is still on the same course. But he does not explain why the reduction was necessary. Is there less student demand for this sequence? Is it difficult to find professors who know enough to teach it? The last possibility is particularly worrisome. If we no longer have professors who can muster a clear grasp of the outlines and details of Western Civ, then our civilization is surely in trouble. If students have lost interest, that is probably a result of bad teaching.

I remember the sequence as the high point of my education-but then I had the privilege of studying with Professor Karl Weintraub. If the University neglects to hire serious historians and thinkers who can teach in favor of high-profile faddists, then there surely has been a change in course. Perhaps this is the time to make the course a requirement, for both students and teachers.

Gabriel Danzig, AB'83, AM'94
Ramat Gan, Israel

I read about the changes wrought by the history department and thought to add my thoughts to the matter.

As a student who began the program as a narrow and specialized science-oriented "nerd," I speak from a perspective that is likely overlooked, which is that of a convert to the arts and to a liberal education.

My only real pleasures at the U of C during the first years were those very courses that have been under the knife. One cannot say that Western Civ has not been eviscerated. The substitution of alternative Civ courses is not the same. Studying Western Civ taught this rather ignorant 18-year-old just why we presume or interpret the world as we do with the myths of history as our paradigm for the world and its interpretation. Removing or shortening the courses as has been done little by little, or giving so-called alternative civilization courses, has obliterated the very stimulus that turned me from a self- assured science punk into what I hope is a more modest and surely less arrogant individual who ended up a professor of art in spite of a bachelor's degree in biopsychology. I dare say I owe it to Western Civ and the humanities courses that I was assigned to take.

The U of C made a lot of mistakes with my education, and I felt poorly served much of the time. The U of C was a misery of a grind. The dorms were cramped, noisy, dirty, and of miserable design and functionality. The required meals were swill and insufficient for a young man still growing. The feeling that I was already three weeks behind one day after classes began was not the way to nurture the mind of this student. The one bright spot was Western Civ.

Specialization is Chicago's Achilles' heel. There should be none, and the College should be three years long. For those who want to study in the Divisions, let them have their way with their own students and give them a degree appropriate to that specialization, but give those who go through the College, the U of C degree in liberal arts with a minor in whatever division they choose to work during the last year. After all, any school can teach first-year chem or biology or stats or physics.

Chicago will lose what individuality it has by making the College less significant and by affecting it through a slow assimilation into mainstream education. The profound failing of so many universities to teach a true liberal education must not percolate into the U of C. I fear it has already done so. Alas.

Neil Fiertel, SB'64
Edmonton, Alberta

The University of Chicago Magazine invites letters on its contents or on topics related to the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space or clarity. In order to ensure as wide of range of views as possible, we ask readers to try to keep letters to 500 words or less. Write:

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