Inventing a 'New Model' For Shared-Culture Study

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In a speech evaluating Stanford's undergraduate curriculum for the faculty senate in 1986, Carolyn C. Lougee, dean of undergraduate studies, addressed the concerns being raised at that time about the university's courses in Western culture and called for the development of a new model:

[T]he concerns are legitimate, and they direct our attention to a cluster of issues having to do with the implications of political, social, and intellectual changes that have occurred over the course of the past 50 years or so since the genre of the Western Civilization course was invented.

The Western Civ course is not a timeless, eternal distillate of human wisdom. It is, rather, a time-specific phenomenon. It is a product of America (they don't teach it, or understand it, in Europe) in the era of the First World War. It's a product of external political necessity (the need to create a trans-Atlantic community) and of internal social necessity (the need to forge a national culture from Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Russians, and so on).

The Civ course created a myth of a West that transcended every ethnicity and embraced them all. "Western Civ'' was of enormous value in those years, for it bonded together ethnicities, fostering intellectual respect among peoples by giving them a shared canon of knowledge picked from all the cultures from which those people had come. ...

Since then, three evolutions have changed the context of university education.

In politics, the Atlantic community has ceded to global economies and global political interactions.

In society, the expansion of the American citizenry, along with the implosion of the world's populations into the United States, has brought onto our campuses not only European nationalities but Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, and Asians.

In scholarship, the past 20 years have seen the humanities and social sciences discover meanings of culture that stretch beyond the concept of "great works'' as well as knowledge of, tools for studying, and respect for the experiences and cultures of women and minorities.

And so it seems to be time to ask whether the model that was ready to hand in 1980, the Western Civ course that had served American universities so well for so long, is adequate to the new political exigencies, the new social realities, and new scholarly understandings.

To me, it seems easily believable that the exclusive focus on European culture reinforces the sense of marginality and "discomfort'' of the newest arrivals on American campuses and that a new model of shared freshman culture course needs to be invented to serve the more diversified population that is now on our campus and in the country's future.

Vol. 07, Issue 32

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