David S. Awbrey: Students are losers if KU drops Western Civ

09/27/2012 12:00 AM

09/26/2012 3:40 PM

Like the Jayhawk mascot and Rock Chalk chant, the Western Civilization program has been a hallmark of undergraduate life at the University of Kansas for generations. But in the academic equivalent of vandalizing Allen Fieldhouse, the university plans to downgrade the “great books” course that exposes KU students to the central ideas of Western culture.

That means future Jayhawks could graduate without thoughtful contact with the Bible, Plato, Chaucer, the Federalist Papers, Freud and other thinkers, writers and historical documents that have shaped the Western intellectual tradition. It’s a ruinous degradation of KU’s undergraduate program and an unconscionable subversion of students’ scholarly, moral, political and ethical maturation.

The endangered Western Civ requirement asks students to take a two-semester, discussion-based course focused on readings spanning more than 3,000 years of Western thought. Since its adoption in the late 1940s, Western Civ has provided one of the few common academic experiences for KU graduates, forging a bond – love the course or not – that rivals basketball championships and “waving the wheat” as hallowed KU traditions.

Sadly, the personal and intellectual development of young people that comes from engaging the foundational concepts of Western society is not an imperative for professors who are redesigning KU’s general education program.

According to Liberal Arts and Sciences dean Danny Anderson, Western Civ is expendable because KU students are more concerned with career goals – acquiring employable “skill sets” – than in comprehending their cultural heritage. Although Western Civ could survive as an elective, its demotion is another devastating blow to KU’s already declining academic reputation, as evidenced by the school’s recent drop in the influential U.S. News and World Report rankings of college quality.

In today’s economy, it’s understandable that undergraduates obsess over preparing themselves for that “first job,” which they hope leads to a rewarding career. In doing so, however, students confuse earning a living with fashioning a life, defining themselves as “human capital” for the global economy rather than seeking the self-knowledge that comes through reflection on lessons from the past.

But the deeper failure lies with faculty members who encourage such cramped attitudes toward education, professors who have abandoned their once-honored role as molders of young minds and transmitters of society’s ideals. Indeed, the KU faculty puts a low priority on ensuring that students have the opportunity to commune with history’s foremost intellects – to participate in “the Great Conversation” that transcends time and space.

Ironically, in catering to students’ immediate job anxieties, the professors undermine students’ long-term career prospects: How better to develop critical-thinking skills needed to cope and thrive in a rapidly changing world than by cracking heads with Aristotle, Darwin and Virginia Woolf?

John Dewey said the primary purpose of education is to enable young people to find “large and human significance” in their lives and work. Few students will discover such meaning for themselves by pursuing a narrow career path and devoting their irreplaceable undergraduate years mainly to vocational training – often obtaining “practical” skills that might be obsolete before they turn 30.

As historian Edward Gibbon argued, the Roman Empire fell largely because its citizens forsook their society’s formative moral and intellectual values and became easy prey for Gothic hordes. Tragically, at KU, the barbarians aren’t at the gate, but ensconced in the highest levels of the university’s faculty and administration.

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