Improving Institutions From Within

RALEIGH – The lack of a general requirement for students to study Western civilization in the University of North Carolina system is nothing new to National Association of Scholars President Steve Balch. UNC system school’s reluctance to require students to study Western civilization is party of a growing national trend to focus more attention and resources towards multicultural or cultural diversity courses.

According to a recently-released report by the National Association of Scholars and the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 64 percent of the 11 UNC institutions reviewed for the study require a multicultural or cultural diversity course. None, however, require students to take a U.S. History course before they graduate college.

The study says that this is an exercise in a politically correct education.

“Unfortunately, one of the major efforts now underway to bring common content back to general education is an effort that has little to do with traditional liberal arts education that we would espouse,” Balch said. “For example there is an organization – the American Association of Colleges and Universities – it has something called the Arts of Democracy project, which is an effort to infuse across the curriculum and in education often through required courses essentially a kind of multicultural agenda. Now if you have a tightening of curriculum requirements at a lot of institutions that is the form it is most likely to take.”

To bring about change to course curriculum may take some time. Balch said the focus to change curriculum and returning institutions to a more traditional liberal arts education should be to work from within to make improvements to the institutions.

“I think people who want to restore liberal education need to think about to not try and change institutions wholesale, at least not in the short term because they are not going to be able to do that and if it happens it’s not going to happen in a way they are going to like,” Balch said. “Rather what they want to try and do is to start building from within islands of excellence – particular programs ran by good faculty members that can recover for those students who are interested an opportunity to study serious subject matter.”

Already, several institutions have recently opened programs that focus on studies of Western Civilization of a more traditional form of a liberal arts education. Most include faculty and staff members working with fellows and others to discuss Western political thought or law among other ideals.

One of those programs is in the Triangle area. Duke University has what it calls the Gerst Program, which is devoted to study Western civilization.

According to the Gerst Program Web site, the program “aims at fostering an understanding of the central importance of freedom for democratic government, moral responsibility, and economic and cultural life.”

The program includes a freshman Focus Program on Visions of Freedom, which includes courses in Political Economy, English, Philosophy, and History. The focus program involves 30 students, who live together, and take two of the four seminar courses in their first semester. There is also a required writing course and students meet once a week for dinner with faculty and a speech by a guest speaker.

Balch said the Gerst Program was a very imaginative effort that is generating enthusiasm among Duke donors.

“It has the potential to grow,” Balch said.

There are other programs that similar to the Gerst Program. Those programs include one at Princeton University called the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. It promotes “a greater appreciation of the Western tradition of legal and political thought,” according to the program’s Web site. The James Madison program offers a Junior Fellows Forum for undergraduates to interact with the program’s fellows. It also offers conferences, seminars and lectures.

The program has raised more than $4.5 million in contributions, according to Balch.

Balch said the University of Colorado is close to opening a Center for the Study of Western Civilization as well, which will be similar to programs at Princeton and Duke.

“It recreates a Western civilization curriculum from within,” Balch said. “That major would probably be pretty close the equivalent to an old fashion liberal arts core for students who wish to take it.”

Creating these new programs is a start to restoring education to what it was 40 or 50 years ago before education standards started to diminish within higher education, Balch said.

“We can start from the outside building out to revive liberal education in our institutions,” said Balch. “To do something wider than that means to essentially to change the composition of the faculty in a wide scale. You can’t begin there. There is no means to which that can be done with one stroke.”

Shannon Blosser ( is a staff writer with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.