A Texas-Sized Defeat for “Western Civilization”

Editor’s note: Robert Koons is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.

For six years, I was involved in efforts at the University of Texas at Austin to create a program in Western Civilization and American Institutions. Our vision was to offer to all undergraduates a sequence of Great Books seminars, beginning with the Bible and the works of ancient Greece and Rome, and culminating with the classics of the American founding. We sought approval of a certificate through which students could satisfy eighteen of their forty-two hours of general education requirements.

We made considerable progress. Perhaps as a result of that progress, we faced opposition from the major humanities programs (especially English, history, American studies, and religious studies), beginning in the spring of 2007. A New York Times article on September 22, 2008, “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses,” accelerated and consolidated that opposition, because it included our program and a quotation from me.

So, even though we secured a “concentration” for our program (a step below but toward a major), introduced a new field of study on campus, raised over $1 million, and hired four postdoctoral teaching fellows, the life of the program was brief.

In November of last year, I was dismissed as director, and in the spring the administration and faculty replaced our program with one on Core Texts and Ideas. The new program lacks any list or criteria for “core texts,” and the goal of a required sequence of courses has vanished.

I don’t wish to rehearse the history of the program in any detail. (Barbara Moeller’s Minding the Campus article covered it very well.) I will, however, record the larger lessons of our experience for others who may wish to start Western civilization programs. In retrospect, we overestimated the value of strong support from outsiders such as private donors, legislators, and policy groups, while we underestimated the determination of our internal opponents.

The main obstacle to our success was the idée fixe of unbridled faculty governance over the curriculum, which dominates at UT and elsewhere. In practice, that means the tyranny of the faculty majority.

Our program was rightly perceived as a threat to the monopoly of what I call the Uncurriculum, which prevails at UT and at most universities today. It is the absence of required courses and of any structure or order to liberal studies. The Uncurriculum dictates that students accumulate courses that meet a “distribution” standard—a smattering of courses scattered among many categories. Even within majors, the trend has been to eliminate required sequences.

The perfecting of the intellect and the formation of character through the attainment of what John Henry Newman called “liberal knowledge” have given way to engorgement with miscellaneous information. The suggestion that higher education should have something to do with acquiring moral wisdom is invariably met with the sophomoric query, “Whose ethics?” As Anthony Kronman has so well documented in his book The End of Education, nothing in the Uncurriculum encourages students to think through the great questions of life in a systematic manner, with the great minds of the Western tradition as their guides and interlocutors.

The Uncurriculum free-for-all gives undergraduates only the illusion of choice. In reality, the Uncurriculum model is entwined with the interests of the professoriate. If there are no courses students are required to take, there are no courses that professors are required to teach.

Professors at research universities focus on the accumulation of prestige through publication, the indispensable means for acquiring tenure and increasing one’s salary (through the leverage of outside offers). By allowing students to pick what they want to study, the Uncurriculum model eliminates a potentially great distraction from the quest for publications: the burden of teaching a required curriculum, unrelated to one’s own narrow research agenda. Undergraduate education, to which lip service is given, has to survive on the crumbs that fall from the banquet table of so-called “research.”

Furthermore, distribution requirements create a captive audience. As long as a department has a piece of the distribution requirements, it can justify a large, research-oriented faculty, while using adjuncts and teaching specialists to do much of the undergraduate classwork. The faculty treats the elements of the core as scarce resources to be distributed to favored departments.

Rather than admit this self-interest, liberal arts professors at UT use post-modern and multicultural ideas to defend the Uncurriculum. These fashionable ideas form an “ideology” in Marx’s sense: a system of ideas designed to cloak, rationalize, and defend an unjust set of relationships, namely, the exploitation of undergraduates and their underwriters (parents, taxpayers, and donors).

If all texts are equal, then there is no basis for a required canon of great texts. If all ideas are equal, then education consists merely in initiating future scholars into a “community of interpretation” (i.e., the academic subculture). These cast-off ideas of debunked philosophy are used to rationalize the absence of any order in undergraduate education, any prioritizing of great works over mediocre ones or of classics over pop culture, and any structure to what is taught.

Due to the Uncurriculum, the humanities are committing slow suicide. There has been a steady decline in liberal arts majors in the last thirty years (from over one-half to fewer than one-quarter of the total). However, the decline is slow enough to make little difference to tenured professors.

Our intention at the University of Texas was to challenge the Uncurriculum. The state of Texas imposes a forty-two hour distribution requirement, misnamed the “Texas Core Curriculum.” The actual definitions of the components are left to each university, and no university has designed a coherent curriculum even as an option. Our decision in 2003 was to create an optional, alternative core, modeled on Columbia’s core, Yale’s Directed Studies, and similar programs that focus on classics of Western civilization.

However, a Great Books program would attract students, thereby accelerating the implosion of the humanities departments. Our introduction of a student-centered, traditionally structured liberal arts alternative would threaten the gentleness of the decline as experienced by mainline departments and perhaps force them to offer a real curriculum in order to compete.

For the academic gatekeepers, it was far easier to keep out the competition.

In addition to underestimating the power of the faculty majority, we also learned that reform-minded trustees cannot count on the appointment of supposedly sound and non-political administrators. Administrators will always side with the faculty majority in defending the Uncurriculum.

Instead, trustees must be willing to do one of two things: (1) get their hands dirty by dictating the details of curricular reform, over the objections of the faculty gatekeepers and their administrative allies, or (2) create alternative mechanisms for the introduction of academic programs.

Our program was a sound alternative to the Uncurriculum. It was privately funded and offered students a coherent way of satisfying many of their general education requirements. Unfortunately, the faculty saw our program as foreign and threatening, and therefore attacked it, much as the human body automatically attacks transplanted organs. We need to prevent that from happening in the future.

One idea, which state legislators could implement, is the creation of “charter colleges” within existing state universities. The state could authorize groups of three or more professors, together with a private foundation or even a for-profit sponsor, to propose charters for innovative programs like ours. If its charter were approved by an outside board, a charter college would be authorized to offer specific courses to satisfy designated components of the state’s core, as well as certificates, minors, and majors. Faculty in the rest of the university would not control the decisions of the charter college.

The experience of the Western Civilization and American Institutions program underscores a sad truth about higher education in America—it is mostly run by and for the faculty. What it likes and dislikes trumps what would be best for students. Our system will never fully achieve its promise as long as that remains true.