Saving Western Civilization

During this coming semester (spring 2013) my colleague, art historian Maureen Vissat, and I have set ourselves the task of saving Western Civilization. Of course, the actual civilization that began in the Near East and now straddles both oceans with former colonial possessions—that civilization is on its own. But the core element, western civ (known as Western Cultural Traditions at our university)—that is very much our concern.

Students come to this course prepared to revisit their worst experiences of “history” from high school. They expect a grilling about the meaning of the acropolis or the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Or maybe someone will ask, what caused the French revolution (and what does “cause” mean anyway)? And dates. Dates seem to exercise students more than just about anything else. Which thirty years were handed over to the Thirty Years’ War? Or the Hundred Years’ War?

I’m not even sure where we will begin. Though, I would love to see a course where students ask questions, such as, why did any war take a hundred years? Or, 95 Theses—who cares? That’s the point, isn’t it—why anyone cared enough about a set of debate prompts that they should start a revolution in church dogma?

Good questions, lively discussions, sharp analysis of source material. That’s where we want to end up, and maybe even generate some good, thoughtful writing along the way. I’d be willing to let students leave the course without knowing the year of Hammurabi’s Code (I’d take a millennium, if they could remember it). I would even trade in their ability to distinguish between Charles II and James II if they could really engage the ideas of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution.

We have a huge task before us. We plan to discuss, revise, and create a new curriculum in the coming semester, then team-teach our course during 2013-2014. The class will serve as a kind of Beta version, with observation and evaluation by all the faculty in this core area and also by our students. And, I plan to do all of this “out loud,” i.e., with full disclosure on the web.

Although we have discussed this project many times during the last year or so, we have yet to hold one meeting to pursue our goal of revising the course. January 2nd, we begin with tabula rasa.

Restoring the Parthenon. Athens, 2005

Restoring the Parthenon. Athens, 2005

I can’t say now what our class will look like. But it probably won’t look like Western Civilization.