Where's the "Western" Requirement?
When I returned to campus on Sunday, I received an email from one of my friends who goes to school in Iowa. She alerted me to a piece in the Wall Street Journal that listed Bowdoin among a number of supposedly elite schools that fail to require courses in history or western civilization. Our placement on this list demonstrates a serious deficiency in our curriculum. We require students to learn about distant parts of the world yet fail to force these same students to grasp the basic foundations of their own culture.
I do not agree with the common rhetoric that all courses that do not satisfy the "non-eurocentric" requirement are "western." It is quite possible that a Bowdoin student might never be exposed to the extant themes among classical western writing. They might never encounter the kaleidoscope of human nature found in the plays of Shakespeare, nor digest the roots of our American polity in the words of Aristotle.
It is shameful that as higher education has made itself more accessible to people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, we have also decreased the emphasis on the classical writings and teachings, some of which have served as the foundation of our society for over two millenia. For example, as recently as seventy-five years ago, it was required that one know both Greek and Latin for one to be admitted to Bowdoin and most other elite colleges. However, in an effort to attract more students from beyond private preparatory institutions, we along with other schools dropped this requirement. This erosion of any core curriculum continued until at one point in the 1970s Bowdoin lacked any distribution requirements. As Stan Druckenmiller indicated in his Common Hour talk last October, many alumni now recognize that the school was wrong by not insisting that students take more courses outside of their major field.
These alumni should not think that our current distribution requirements are adequate. Especially in this time where the world's freedoms are being so gravely threatened, it is essential that we understand the history and cultures that influence our own free and liberal society. I recall Thomas Jefferson who opined that our citizens should learn the history and culture of only four societies: Greece, Rome, Great Britain, and the United States; these being societies that experimented with liberty. Jefferson rightly reasoned that by understanding the ways in which republics similar to ours developed and then fell into decadence we could best preserve our nascent republic. Of course today's world is more global and more diverse than the world in which Jefferson lived, so I do not mean to suggest that we eliminate the non-eurocentric requirement here at Bowdoin. I only am recommending that it be matched with a requirement in some form of traditional western thinking: Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Homer, Goethe, Schiller, etc. Whether we like it or not, these "dead white men" are irreplaceable figures in our social, political, and cultural development and we tragically deprive ourselves of valuable lessons by not grappling with the relevant messages that their works impart on us.
Such relevance is encapsulated in the Fall 2001 edition of "The
Intercollegiate Studies Review" where Prof. Louise Cowan quotes one
of her late colleagues Prof. Cedric Whitman. He articulates that "the
notion of the hero is the center of one of the most powerful clusters
of ideas that ancient culture has bequeathed to Western literature and
art." Dr. Cowan intimates further that it was indeed the Greek ideal
of the selfless hero fighting for his city embodied in Achilles that our
framers envisioned to be the country's line of defense against threats
to liberty like that which we see today in the Taliban. It is the responsibility
of America's institutions of higher learning to guide us through the classical
history, philosophy, and poetry that have bound western civilization for
two millennia. This education ensures that America's polity does not become
what Aristotle called a "slavish city" that lacks the spiritedness
to defend itself and instead moves toward a society and culture that values
and celebrates patriotic heroism.