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:: By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Coursework: Talking about a revolution

Dean of the College John W. Boyer leads a class through an event that makes almost every historian’s Top Ten list.

photo:  John BoyerJohn W. Boyer

It’s the second day of Western Civilization III and John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, looks annoyed. Just as his class is due to start in Cobb 115, he has been ousted from his assigned room. Boyer’s students, who are offered no explanation, dutifully shuffle across the hall. The new classroom is nearly identical, but somehow the orientation shifts so that everyone, Boyer included, ends up sitting in a completely different place.

“Good morning, somewhat belatedly,” says Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson distinguished service professor in history—and Dean of the College since 1992. It’s only 9:05, but with a topic like “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” to cover in less than three hours, even five minutes is too much to lose. To prepare for today’s class, the students had been asked to plow through 178 pages of dense primary documents, along with Owen Connelly and Fred Hembree’s The French Revolution for background.

“The challenge of coping with change is not an easy one,” Boyer begins. “Take, for example, this university. Universities are among the most conservative of beasts.” Even professors with radical politics outside the academy tend to be “deeply conservative” inside it, subscribing to the common creed, “‘that’s the way we’ve always done things,’” the dean says, his knowledge born of hard-earned experience.

Why did the French Revolution, with its “terribly frightening” changes, occur when it did? Boyer asks rhetorically. By the late 1780s, he explains, the “yawning budget deficit” meant the French simply could not run their government—and weak, indecisive Louis XVI was no help. “Many of you will become leaders in your various fields,” Boyer says—his first of several fatherly pep talks. “A leader is supposed to be the last person to lose his head. He’s supposed to sit there coolly. France did not have a leader who could do that.”

During the scene-setting a few more students creep in; by 9:15 the small class has grown to 12. It’s soon clear that today’s topic is the most important one of the section, and perhaps of the entire course. Asked to rank “the big events of world history,” Boyer says, most professional historians would slot the French Revolution into the top ten, if not the top five.

Boyer asks the group to open their book of readings, Volume Seven of the University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization series, to Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès’s famously inflammatory pamphlet of 1789, “What Is the Third Estate?” (In France’s ancien régime, the “First Estate” referred to the clergy, the “Second Estate” the nobility, and the “Third Estate” everyone else). Before analyzing the text, Boyer looks at the introduction, where editor Keith Baker notes Sieyès’s “search for advancement through a church career.”

“What does ‘search for advancement’ mean?” Boyer asks. A polished young woman with streaked blond hair, a long string of pearls, and high-heeled wedges, is the first to respond. “To go from the Third to the First Estate,” she suggests.

“If you were to trying to advance your career today,” says Boyer, “if you were, say, born in deepest Kansas, what should you do?”

The advice comes quickly: “Get out of Kansas.”

“Go to school.”

“Marry up.”


“Some kind of public service.”

“There are a number of different options,” Boyer agrees. “But Sieyès’s father wasn’t noble. He was never going to rise to the higher reaches of the church. This document is very autobiographical. It’s characterized by bile, spite, almost paranoia.”

With Sieyès’s pamphlet, the concept of “the nation” enters Europe’s vocabulary, Boyer notes, “and once it’s in, it’s never out. Who has used nationalism in an evil way?”

“Hitler,” several students reply at once.

“Who else?”

The undergraduates are silent. Finally a young man with a red T-shirt and several days of stubble answers, “Milosevic.”

Boyer nods. “Two hundred thousand people murdered in your lifetime,” he says. “Nationalism can mean the Fourth of July and eating hot dogs. It can also mean murdering people. You can do both in the name of nationalism.”

At 10:25 Boyer calls a 15-minute coffee break. Two students return with coffee cups; several others have chosen to fuel themselves with cheap candy from Cobb Coffee Shop. Still others conserve energy by layering on additional clothing against the room’s arctic air-conditioning.
The next documents up for discussion are the National Assembly Decrees of August 10 and 11, 1789. In a frenzied session on August 4, Boyer explains, the assembly essentially decided to abolish the entire feudal regime—but the first documents on the subject don’t appear until a week later.

“The hangover effect,” Boyer explains, when no students offer up a guess at what caused the delay. “You look at yourself in the mirror the next morning and ask yourself, ‘What did I do? Why did I do that? I’ll never do that again.’”The students snicker.“I’ve never experienced that myself,” Boyer deadpans, “but I’ve heard about it.”

At 11 o’clock, with just 45 minutes left, a final scholar slouches into class, bringing the total number to 15. Meanwhile Boyer is telling a true-life story about a 1989 meeting with Soviet historians at the Kremlin (pausing first to define glasnost and perestroika for his charges, mere toddlers when the Berlin Wall fell). In an attempt to be polite, Boyer recalls, he noted that it was fitting to meet during the bicentennial of the French Revolution, since both the United States and Russia were “revolutionary societies.” To his chagrin, he says, he was immediately corrected by a Soviet historian: the United States did not have a revolution, but a “war of people’s liberation.”

The students laugh.

“He was right,” Boyer says. They stop laughing. “Why?”

“It wasn’t a social revolution,” says a young man in a maroon “Class of 2008” T-shirt. “We just told the king to take a hike.”

Boyer nods. “Private property remained intact. Sure, we locked up a few Tories, tarred and feathered a few people. That’s not a revolution. Russia had a profound social revolution. The French did too.”

Near the end of class, Boyer asks the students to compare Articles 10 and 11 of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with the Constitution’s First Amendment. “There are clearly family resemblances,” Boyer says of the two documents. “How are they different?”

“They are so different,” exclaims a dark-haired young woman with unexpected passion. Her argument centers on the recent banning of Muslim head scarves in French schools—a law, Boyer points out, supported by politicians across the spectrum. Article 10 establishes freedom of religion, but only as long as “expression does not trouble the public order established by law.” In other words, the general will—that of the French as a people—overrides the individual will, the student continues, peeping furiously through cheek-length bangs.

“I’m very grateful you brought that up,” Boyer says. “There are a lot of parallels” between the French and the American documents, “but a lot of differences are embedded already in August of 1789.”

When the clock reaches noon and the day’s session ends, Louis XVI remains king and not a single noble has been guillotined yet. Unruffled, Boyer says that the next class will center on what common people thought about their country’s revolution. “The longer the constitution takes to complete,” Boyer says, indicating the direction the next day’s discussion will take, “the more the common people say, that’s not the revolution we want.” Never has dawdling seemed quite so dangerous.


John Boyer didn’t write the book on Western Civ, but he did co-edit it. Along with history professor emeritus Julius Kirshner, Boyer served as the general editor for the nine-volume University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization (1987), a collection of primary documents chosen specifically for the course. Sometimes called the “rainbow series” because of its brightly colored covers, the Western Civilization series begins with The Greek Polis (mustard yellow) and ends with Twentieth-Century Europe (lime green).

Boyer’s Western Civilization III course—which covers the modern end of the story—uses volumes seven, eight, and nine, which include The Old Regime and the French Revolution (teal blue) and Nineteenth-Century Europe: Liberalism and Its Critics (hospital green). The other required readings are The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels and The French Revolution (1993) by Owen Connelly and Fred Hembree. On reserve is A History of the Modern World, volume 2, by R. R. Palmer and Joel Colton.

Undergraduates who take all three quarters of Western Civ usually need an entire academic year to do it. During Summer quarter, however, they can choose an intensive version that compresses each section into three weeks. Boyer’s Summer syllabus, which lists only eight sessions, implores his students, “Please do not miss any class meetings!” With no time for a midterm or even papers, students’ grades depend entirely on class participation and “a take-home final examination consisting of partly factual questions and partly essay questions.”