The University of Chicago Is Not Abandoning Its Commitment to Western Civ


Dr. Fulton is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago.

Editor's Note: The University of Chicago is revamping its history curriculum. On other campuses this would barely merit national headlines. But Chicago is different. Chicago's curriculum, with its emphasis on traditional Western history, has held on stubornly in the face of relentless attacks through the years by reformers who championed other approaches. On June 6, 2002 Dr. Fulton defended the change, which she minimized, at a meeting of the trustees of the University of Chicago. Following is an excerpt from her remarks. (To read statement in full, click here.)

If so much is similar in the new course, why the need for a change? I will try to explain. This will take a moment, but I hope it helps you see the logic behind the new course.

There are several strands of development involved, beginning in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, European historians developed the idea that there was such a thing as a quintessential moment in the development of a culture at which it achieved its fullest, most perfect form--its natural or evolutionary perfection. Such moments in European civilization included Athens in the 5th century B.C., Christian Rome under the Emperor Constantine, northern Italy (particular Florence) during the Renaissance, or France under Louis XIV.

In the early 20th century in America, this idea of civilization as something that could be more or less perfectly realized was coupled with the conviction that the single most perfect realization of human civilization was European and that the United States, as heir to Europe, shared in this perfection. This perfected form of civilization was called"Western" rather than"European" because it had extended outward from Europe across the Atlantic.

Following World War I, a number of universities in the United States began to develop courses that would instruct students in the essentials of this"Western" civilization and thus make them as citizens"safe for democracy" (with the implication,"safe from socialism or communism").

Interestingly, however, at The University of Chicago, the introduction of such a course was delayed until 1931 because the faculty in the Humanities was at that time deeply suspicious of any approach to cultural artifacts such as texts that presumed to suggest that they were things made in time, rather than more or less perfect expressions of particular aesthetic forms.

In the end, the historians at Chicago"won" the fight to introduce a History of Western Civilization course only indirectly, by agreeing to teach a course that was not in fact a history course, but rather a course in the appreciation of a series of more or less disconnected cultural moments.

The result was a course that was in effect neither fish nor fowl--neither a course in"Great Texts" to be appreciated for their aesthetic form and articulation of transhistorical"Great Ideas" nor a course in History dealing with cause and effect, contingency, development and change.

Rather, as one faculty member put it, the course presented students with a series of"beads on a string"--quintessential moments at which European culture had achieved its most celebrated forms. The connecting"string" of historical narrative was supplied not in the discussion of primary texts, but rather through a series of lectures by senior professors, later supplemented by a textbook written by William McNeill (History of Western Civilization: A Handbook, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953]).

This is the course that in one form or another has been taught at Chicago since as the"History of Western Civilization": a disconnected series of"topics" bound together not by a narrative of historical change but rather by the assumption that in each"topic" some quintessential cultural crisis or concept was most perfectly represented by certain actors rather than others--e.g. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther rather than Alexander Nequam or Rabelais.

This is what our new course will do differently. It will present the history of European civilization as a narrative of process and change--not as a discrete series of quintessential moments, but rather as a on-going effort to create a society, a polity, an intellectual and aesthetic life; an effort always contingent, always dependent on the participation of the community as a whole, frequently at the risk of the very existence of that community as a whole.

Accordingly, the texts for the course have been chosen and will be read not as"representative types" of this or that quintessential moment, but rather as artifacts made at a particular point in time by authors for reasons specific to the moment in which they were made. Insofar as the texts must stand as part for the whole, what we hope to teach our students is that civilization itself is an artifact made in time-both in its particulars and in its largest forms.

Our emphasis will therefore be more on the choices that European people made at particular times to adopt examples from the other civilizations with which they were in contact-that of ancient Greece and Rome, but also those of Islam, the Americas, and Asia-than on the apparent continuity of the civilizational forms. What is the most important lesson for our students from this perspective? There was nothing natural or necessary in the history of European civilization about the appeal either to the classical world of the past or to the other cultures of the present.

European civilization was not the natural product of essential forms laid out in Antiquity. Rather, it was and is a complex entity constructed on the ruins of Rome by choices that medieval and modern Europeans made consciously to preserve certain elements of the classical past (e.g. Christianity, Aristotelian science) but only on their own terms--not because Antiquity carried a"germ" of civilization that could only be"revived" once certain"barbarian accretions" had been cleared away.

European civilization in this vision is the human product of a series of choices and conflicts, both internal and external. What we want our students to see is that a civilization, any civilization, is a work in progress--not only in the present but also at every moment over the course of its history. There is nothing inevitable about the choices people make--to preserve what they inherit from the past or to destroy it. At every point it could have gone otherwise, based on the decisions of the people alive at the time.

The story of the new course is a story of contingency rather than essence, of human agency in the face of conflict, of the choices made at given points in time and of the effects of those choices over time.

This is what we want to teach our students in our new course: history as contingency and agency rather than history as the realization of essential forms. We want them to see the string, not just the beads, because without the string, there would be no necklace in the first place.

Gilbert Allardyce,"The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," The American Historical Review 87.3 (1982): 695-725.

Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

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