American Mind

The Return of Western Civ

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On January 15, 1987, Jesse Jackson led a demonstration of 500 students at Stanford University chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Today, 37 years later, Jackson and the student radicals have accomplished their goal. The study of Western civilization in any comprehensive and serious sense is indeed “gone” in most of American higher education. The once requisite undergraduate Western Civilization class has been sidelined with elective (and sometimes required) courses in ethnic, gender, queer, multicultural, and post-colonial studies. The foundations of American constitutional democracy are not required study for our young citizens.

For years, conservatives, traditional liberals, and non-partisan independents have, while lamenting this situation, felt hopeless to do anything about it. But, this month, the Utah State Legislature is planning something transformational in American higher education. Public universities are funded by taxpayers to serve the interests of the public at large. For more than 100 years, state legislatures and university trustees have required state colleges and universities to mandate specific courses that students must take for graduation. In the past, these courses usually involved instruction in American history, citizenship, and Western civilization, and more recently “diversity” mandates and courses in ethnic and gender studies.    

Utah State Senator John D. Johnson has just introduced Senate Bill 226, which has the potential to revolutionize higher education in Utah and—if its core tenets spread—throughout the United States. SB 226 is based on model state legislation for public universities developed by education reform champions David Randall of the National Association of Scholars, Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Jenna Robinson of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

The bill will establish an independent academic unit, the School of General Education, which will have its own dean and hiring, firing, promotion, and tenure programs for professors independent from the university’s administrative bureaucracy. The “purposes of the School of General Education are to educate students; through books and major debates which form the intellectual foundations of free countries, especially that of the United States through the principles, ideals, and institutions of law, liberty, and civic virtue [that] under pin the American constitutional order.”

All students at the University of Utah will be required to take 42 semester hours (13 courses, ten for STEM students) of instruction in the School of General Education to graduate. The required courses specifically include the study of Ancient Greece and Rome; the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; the rise of Christianity, medieval Western Europe; medieval English legal and constitutional history; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the development of parliamentary democracy in Britain; the French Revolution; the Industrial Revolution in Britain; Western science; the rise and fall of the Soviet Union; and Nazi Germany.

The required courses in American history and civic education will teach “the founding principes of natural rights, liberty, equality, representative democracy, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and constitutional self-government” through “the study of original source documents…that illustrate the United States’ constitutional  history and structure.”

Students will also learn about “influential works of economic theory” and the “exemplary masterpieces of Western fine arts in genres including music, painting, sculpture, and architecture.” In addition, students will be required to study the “distinctive history, culture, literature, and social structure” of at least four non-Western cultures and nations “to be selected from China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Russia, Japan, and Southeast Asia.” Senate Bill 266 states, “As appropriate, humanities, and social science general education courses shall highlight the theme of Western liberty and republican self-government including: historical sources, strengths and weaknesses, the 20th century challenges from communism and fascism, and contrasts with non-Western systems of government.”

Significantly, the costs will come from the existing budget of the University of Utah. A new dean of the School of General Education and new professors will have to be hired, but the new costs could be covered by eliminating current programs in ethnic and gender studies and cutting the administrative bloat that has increased exponentially as DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) has expanded throughout the academy in recent years.

The proposed legislation is not a panacea. However, SB 226 offers hope and a template on how to proceed. If this project succeeds and proves to be popular it has the potential to spread to other state universities and influence private institutions. Most importantly, it has the potential to serve the common good by breaking the monopoly of the prevailing orthodoxy in higher education.

For people concerned that the nation’s universities have become ideological training grounds for revolutionary shock troops and laboratories of social justice experimentation, the news from Utah is salutary. Finally, there is a chance that higher education may serve to ground our young people—of all perspectives—in the great and good lessons of the past.

Read in American Mind.