Publication Date

May 1, 1998

Contributing Editor's Note: Teaching issues are being discussed by historians in an ever-growing number of settings including local and regional societies. This essay was identified by Peter Holloran, secretary of the New England Historical Association, as an example of the issues covered by the association at its October 1997 conference. The article was originally published in the ECCSSA Journal(12:1, winter 1997, 42–50), the publication of the Eastern Community College Social Science Association. We publish it here with the permission of the journal.

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asked the Christian apologist Tertullian in the second century, thereby implying that the Greek heritage had become irrelevant in the new dispensation. What possible utility could a knowledge of antiquity have to anyone in the new age? Something ominously akin to that seems to be at work in the effort to dilute, if not replace, the study of Western civilization in undergraduate education. One author has recently recounted the "Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization" course.1 Others have referred, not exactly with the nostalgia of John Donne regarding those “bare ruined choirs,” to the “last Eurocentric generation.”2 To support the continuation of Western Civ runs the risk of appearing reactionary or, worse yet, ethnocentric in this global age of inclusion.

When Clinton Rossiter wrote his Conservatism in America, he subtitled his text The Thankless Persuasion.3 He did so because the liberal consensus seemed to be pretty much in place and accepted as a fait accompli. A similar sentiment surrounds “multiculturalism” and with it, world history. To challenge its place in the changing curriculum seems equally thankless. Not long ago, Donald Kagan, then dean of the college at Yale, told the incoming first-year students there that the study of Western civilization would be an integral part of their education. His penalty for speaking his mind was considerably less severe than that meted out to John Hus in 1415, but it nonetheless chills. Some students “hooted” him down and denounced him as a racist. In reporting the incident, the Yale Daily News identified Kagan as a “white male professor” who had apparently sent “what could be perceived as a dangerous message to this community.”4

To speak of curricular issues is to step into a terrain booby-trapped with intellectual landmines. What motivates my presentation is simply this: What is best for our students? In my particular institution, a community college in New Jersey, students arrive with only a minimum exposure to the history of Western civilization, since it is not a high school requirement. Is it best for these students to gloss the history of the world in preference to learning about the very culture to which they belong?

Several reasons are adduced for replacing Western Civ, and most of them warrant serious consideration. Students sometimes do feel unconnected to the European past; the United States is increasingly non-European ethnically; and the course itself has, at least in the past, been used to celebrate the superiority of the West and to neglect all "others." Admittedly, textbooks as well as teachers not so long ago dealt with non-European or non-American peoples only as they related to the Europeans themselves, and then normally in a cavalier and condescending fashion.

Recently, authors of textbooks, informed by research in social and cultural history, have attempted to correct such deficiencies and have responded to the valid charges that the survey of Western Civ has traditionally neglected an awful lot of people and ideas. Presently, most Western Civ textbooks are no longer guilty of such egregious errors, in part because writing a text has indeed become a "hazardous" undertaking.5 Many in fact have used the course to swing the pendulum in a corrective fashion sometimes to the other extreme. Most, however, treat the West in its totality, revealing its many warts and scars. The days have long passed when Western Civ had as its aim “to trace the roots of American liberty and democracy back along a particular track, the railhead usually being Hammurabi, . . . which exposes the fundamental ideological nature of the course.”6 Once upon a time, that characterization would have been quite accurate, but that no longer reflects the reality of Western Civ texts or its teachers. This has been accomplished by the thoughtful and persistent insistence of some that women, minorities, and “people without history” be incorporated into the coverage. One must strenuously challenge, for example, Peter Stearns’s contention that contemporary texts celebrate Athens with only “passing reference” to its slavery.7 The more popular texts in American undergraduate education expend a great deal of energy criticizing the “democracy” of Athens as well as the “new imperialism” of late 19th-century Europe. A perusal of some of the more popular college texts can easily document that claim. For instance, one respected text reminds readers that slavery was in fact “commonplace” in ancient Greece, and compares it to Mesopotamian slavery. The index makes further reference in nine separate lines to the institution of slavery in Western civilization.8

In his textbook, Mark Kishlansky informs the student that in classical Athens, "over one-quarter of the total population were slaves" and judges it "fundamental" to Athenian culture. He includes 10 additional references to that institution in his index.9

Lynn Hunt, in her recent contribution to the field, counts 12 general entries under slavery in the index. More to the point, she discusses at length the significance of slavery in ancient Greece, where slaves worked, tutored, and might be killed "with impunity" by their owners. She concludes that the slaves of ancient Greece certainly contributed to the economy of Greek society but received little benefit or recompense for their efforts.10

Likewise, the discussion of women in all of the above texts is made central and not peripheral to Western civilization. The charge of Stearns simply has no merit any longer, and an examination of the texts refutes his contention.

Thanks to the prompting of world history representatives, many textbooks now also include (and not merely as a "caboose") the important contributions made by non-Western civilizations to the development of Western civilization from its very foundations in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin. In that sense, the old Western Civ course has indeed "fallen."

I should note at the outset that the proponents of world history with whom I have had the good fortune to communicate have had a profound impact on my own thinking. In fact, much of my initial hostility to world history has been dissipated; I have revised, and continue to do so, my own thinking on the subject. Judging by the feedback on the Internet to the "thread" of Western Civ or world history discussion, the issue is by no means a settled matter among my colleagues on campuses throughout the United States. I am grateful especially to Ross Dunn and Sara Tucker for their informed and judicious responses to my queries. In addition, textbook authors such as Lynn Hunt, Mark Kishlansky, and John McKay have also provided me with some useful insights into the question. After my introduction to the Internet, I discovered that this very question had been discussed in some detail in 1994. And it continues to generate much debate, which testifies to a certain vigor in our profession.

Two incidents prompted my initial interest in this question (as well as my hostility). First, our dean asked me if I thought we ought to replace our tired old Western Civ course with a more "current" offering in world history. At the time, I paid little attention (she is not a historian, I thought), merely reporting the conversation to my colleagues who, like myself, expressed concern that such a strategy would further dilute what we already believed too thin. Later, the dean of instruction likewise indicated his belief that our department ought to be more inclusive and scuttle our Western Civ course. Again, he is not a historian. I did recall reading some articles in Perspectives that posited the end of the European focus in history, but again I paid little attention.11

Some time later, I received a notice about an upcoming meeting of the mid-Atlantic branch of the World History Association. I scanned the topics and areas to be discussed and saw nothing that hinted at dissent from the idea that world history had replaced Western Civ. I received encouragement to submit a proposal that would consider the validity and advisability of so doing. Amid some protests that my doubts had already been settled and hardly warranted attention, my proposal was accepted. I proceeded to ask my former graduate school professors if indeed world history had replaced Western Civ. They were taken aback by the suggestion and offered further encouragement along with my colleagues at Ocean County College to pursue this issue.

Discovering that our students are woefully ignorant of all history, I looked at what kinds of history high school students in New Jersey studied. Most take two years of American history and one year of world history. Not surprisingly, their lack of knowledge of European history borders on the scandalous. Professor Evelyn Edson of Piedmont Virginia Community College relates a tale not atypical of today's student when she recounts a student's question, "Wouldn't Socrates have died before he was born, if he lived from 469 to 399?"12

Next, I investigated what colleges, especially two-year schools, are offering as history courses. Among the 19 community colleges in New Jersey, 11 offer Western Civ; 3 offer both surveys; and 4 offer only world history. Among New Jersey four-year institutions, Trenton State and Rutgers offer world history while Stockton, St. Peter's, Seton Hall, and Georgian Court stick with Western Civ. Obviously, there is no unanimity concerning which survey best suits the needs of students. Despite the fact that Western Civ remains the overwhelming preference among most colleges and universities (and also despite my misgivings), I do imagine that world history may eventually replace Western Civ as the choice of many if not most colleges and universities in the United States (see Table 1 at end of the notes).13 The appeal of “global” seems too popular in the present environment to avoid this. Certainly the ever-growing movement toward a “global marketplace” strongly encourages a global preparation for the work force. However, I hope that the history of Western civilization will continue to receive the treatment that it merits. I will outline in more detail how best to accomplish and ensure that.

My objections to world history fall into two distinct categories. World history advocates have addressed them, but not satisfactorily. The issues involve logistical and philosophical problems that seem presently to be somewhat insoluble though I remain hopeful that a solution will evolve. I should reiterate that the single most important question that I keep asking myself as a professional educator is, what is best for our students? I think that transcends any philosophical or historiographical concerns we might have.

First, the logistical problem of attempting to "cover it all." Naturally, no one, even in the more limited U.S. survey, manages to do so and we probably should stop trying. To try to do so can only lead to "virtual" history. If we attempted to teach Spanish and Russian and Korean in the same language class we would only confuse the student. Some would construct an entirely artificial language like Esperanto to accomplish that "global" feel. The danger of so much coverage is that we might well hurry our students through the world like Carmen Sandiego and leave them stranded.

A survey of some of the world history texts documents this point. Students assigned Heritage of World Civilizations leave Europe at the end of the Roman Empire and proceed to India, Iran, Africa, China, Japan, then Iran and India again before taking up the narrative with the Franks almost 200 pages later.14 The McKay text sticks closer to the narrative.15 It does so by assigning 22 pages to cover over eleven hundred years of African history. The next 30 pages manage to cover India, China, and Japan during a period of over a thousand years! Those pages simply will not do justice to the subjects. In fact, they do the subject a disservice. The interesting thing about the McKay text is that the volume on Western history lists the same authors as the one on world societies. Surprisingly, both texts are similar in length. In fact, the world history survey is 10 percent shorter!16 To accomplish this, some items included in the Western Civ text had to be excised, including health and medical issues in Frankish times, medieval town life, the Dominicans, and other topics.

One of the strategies employed is reduction in the coverage of Western history. One of the leading proponents of the world history movement and a recent convert to the cause, Peter Stearns, recommends a strategy of trimming, sometimes "radical" or "severe pruning."17 Even the Renaissance lay victim to this Occam’s razor, though I suspect he made that cut in jest.18 Obviously, we all make decisions as to what to include and exclude in our surveys, which are, after all, just that. Only the publishing industry seems comfortable with this arrangement. They always miraculously manage to piece together a world history or Western Civ or American history course textbook that is 15 chapters long; one for each week in the semester.

Some world history strategists (and realistic Western Civ teachers as well) acknowledge that covering it all is neither possible nor desirable. Therefore, the former elect to focus on "processes" or the "big events." Ross Dunn defines the latter as events big enough to have an impact on different cultures in a "shared experience."19 Does that suggest that until an event becomes significant to a majority it lacks historical credibility? Originally, the scientific revolution had little impact beyond the couple of hundred individuals who even understood it. Yet, as one Western Civ text reminds us, this “quiet revolution” had “far-reaching implications.”20 A generation ago Herbert Butterfield argued that this revolution reduced historical movements like the Renaissance and the Reformation to the ranks of “mere episodes.”21 What of those male bastions of the medieval periodā€”universities? Do they fail to warrant mention because of their obvious “minority” status that precluded them from being a “shared experience” for most?

Stearns argues that an "urgent need" to understand Africa and Asia exists.22 There is no debate there, but would not a full course (taught by individuals with some expertise) better serve that need? In this, I would support Diane Ravitch who suggests a yearlong study of Western Civ and another year of non-Western civilizations.23

Another logistical problem is the issue of teacher preparedness. It seems that our students ought to be assured that their professor has some schooling in the areas being taught. Very few world historians, I suspect, have linguistic training in non-Western languages, which handicaps them significantly. I do not pretend to be informed and expert in all (not even most!) areas of European history, but my total lack of training in non-Western areas troubles me immensely. To "retool" seems to do a grave injustice to a field deserving of lengthy preparation. Many correspondents have indicated their willingness to undertake the challenge of so doing; but can one really keep current with developments in "world" history? (Again, I make no pretense of so doing even in my own area.) Perhaps this can be addressed by the graduate programs newly in place in institutions like the University of Hawaii, Rutgers University, and others. Specialization within the field of history (indeed within any area) does offer some virtues that have been part of the schooling of historians within the United States, and the training in world history seems to contravene that professional tradition.

Less troublesome than the simple logistics of offering world history in lieu of Western Civ and providing skilled professionals to teach it is the philosophical issue. Ross Dunn recounted a revealing incident that occurred innocuously enough while walking down the street in his own culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood. He noticed a sea of faces, those of relative "newcomers" to America. On his way back home, he wondered if his own children would have the opportunity to learn about these immigrants and their personal reasons for leaving their natal homes and coming to California.24 Perhaps he and I live in similar environments. Although quite sympathetic to Dunn’s feelings about the wonderful opportunity to discover and understand other peoples, my own response to the incident differs (and I hope it will not be interpreted as mere ethnocentrism). I wondered if these latest groups of American immigrants would elect to learn about the culture and civilization they had chosen to live in. I also pondered what changes they might bring or attempt to effect in their new environment. I was also reminded that, for better or worse, the globe is becoming increasingly Western. How ironic to abandon the study of that civilization at what Francis Fukuyama calls, with some exaggeration, “the end of history.” Still, the chief distinguishing characteristic of modernity is its “Westernness.” It would seem that we ought to require our students to be conversant with the features of that civilization because of its very relevance rather than replacing it due to its perceived irrelevance!

Western Civ does, in fact, require our students to confront other cultures. A Western Civ text (and course) should present the features of that other civilization or culture, not just as they appeared to Western eyes, but on their own terms. Certainly Western Civ students should read parts of the Qur'an and understand the attitudes that produced Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Indeed, as Stearns has rightly argued, we have “to treat non-Westerners as players in their own right and not simply as recipients of Western impulses and guidance.”25 I think no Western Civ instructor could possibly dissent from such a praiseworthy goal.

Because of what Theodore Von Laue identified as the world revolution of Westernization, a Western Civ course (properly sculptured) offers the student the best background to understanding the forces presently dominating much of the world and making informed comparisons.26 Harvard historian David Gordon argued similarly that a Western Civ course would expose the student to many “unsavory ideas” and force the student to confront important and continuing issues with a solid foundation.27 Naturally there are only so many classes that we can require our undergraduate students to take. As historians, we would prefer to see the number of history courses increased. Given the limitations of the school year, we have to make decisions. World historians declare that their choice is the better because it connects people of the increasingly diverse population with the history they study. Others argue that our ignorance of non-Western societies will hamper us economically in the future in an increasingly complex global economy. Still others opine that without seeing the whole picture of human history we stay focused on the particular only, and consequently miss the larger landscape. All of these are excellent reasons for enlarging our vision in the survey course so that we survey not just the familiar but the “foreign” as well.

The question becomes which vehicle will best allow our students to accomplish these estimable goals. Western Civ proponents want to ensure that we study our own civilization and understand exactly how it came to be what it is. If, as some world history advocates suggest, we accord all civilizations equal time then, as William McNeill reminds us, none can be considered essential.28

In the existing Western Civ surveys, the students already have their hands full. To edit more from it and to add other civilizations in its place would cause us to lose the narrative and, consequently, the coherence of history. As Theodore Rabb of Princeton concluded, our first responsibility has to be teaching the fundamentals of Western Civ. Only then can the student branch out.29 Peter Stearns’s idea was to select certain themes or processes and limit them to three or four to enable the student to find patterns that allow generalizations to link all civilizations; this certainly makes the world history course “doable,” but it fragments the past and risks losing the student in the process.30

Fritz Stern edited an instructive book a generation ago entitled The Varieties of History in which he offered several examples of how historians have defined their roles and philosophies of history. He was not troubled by the changing face of history. “Nothing is more characteristic of the history of the last 200 years than the demand from within the profession that history must once again become broader, more inclusive, more concerned with the deeper aspects of human experience.”31 At the close of the century, a similar demand is being heard. What historians have to decide is how best to serve the needs of the student and the integrity of history.

In order to keep the question alive, I would like to offer some alternatives to the either/or proposition of dropping Western Civ altogether or retaining it and dropping world history. Neither, it seems, will simply disappear. Lynne Cheney recommended that students take six credits of Western Civ and six more of non-Western history, along with three credits in American history.32 As desirable as this scheme is, it is equally unrealistic. Students will simply not accept the burden of so many history requirements.

In light of that, one recommendation to replace the "Western Civ or world history" alternative is the following. Western Civ should be reconfigured into two distinct courses. The first would focus on the ancient world to the Renaissance or Reformation, which pretty much replicates the existing "Civ One" course. The second half of the course would focus on the interaction between the West and the world. It is during this course that time could be spent developing a world perspective that would not interrupt the narrative but would in fact complete it. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy made no apology that the book had a “heavily Eurocentric” thrust. In fact, he judged it “only natural.”33 As Jacques Ellul observed, the entire world has become “heir to the West.”34

William McNeill, whose important work Rise of the West basically established the world history movement, also focused on Europe’s central role in the making of the modern world.35 Yet even he did not attempt to include “everyone” in his survey. He defended the continuation of separate national histories to supply that natural need that everyone has for a sense of history.36

The above solution to the present "troubles" in the discipline is actually not my first choice. I would prefer to continue two courses in Western Civ and add a required course for all students on the history of the 20th-century world along with an additional course in a non-Western field. The recent work of Eric Hobsbawm might serve as an organizational model for such a useful and "doable" course. Like most in the discipline, however, it is regrettably a text that could be read by only a minority of our students.37 (I haven’t even mentioned the role of reading level in the choice of texts as well as courses for our students, but it certainly is an issue of increasingly important consideration.)

The needs of our students are best met by teaching them first and foremost about their own civilization and all the contributions made by others to it; this instruction needs to be an informed one. We are too much in the habit, I suspect, of applying the cant of bumper stickers to our profession: think globally, act locally. If the world history survey attempts to cover the world in the same space in which we previously covered Western Civ, the attempt must surely fail. The narrative that most students (and readers) need is sacrificed and the student is offered a smorgasbord or sampler which, like a wallpaper book, would stupefy and confuse.

My final option would be: Allow the issue to be sealed in the marketplace. Colleges ought to work to offer both world history and Western Civ surveys so that educators provide the fullest spectrum of information to their students and allow each individual to determine the preferred route. My only entreaty is to focus the world option on a thorough treatment of the West as well as for Western Civ to continue to incorporate a more inclusive approach to all cultures with which it came into contact. The chief beneficiary of this would be the student, who lives in Western civilization, attends an institution founded in the West, and is presumably a part of that civilization.

— is assistant professor of history at Ocean County College, Toms River, N.J. He thanks Lynn Hunt (Univ. of Pennsylvania) and William G. Shade and Mike Baylor (Lehigh Univ.) for reading drafts of the article and for encouraging him.


1. Gilbert Allardyce, “The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course,” American Historical Review 87 (1982): 695-743. More recently see Thomas Davis, “Starting from Scratch: Shifting from Western Civ to World History,” Perspectives (December 1996): 1.

2. John R. Gillis, quoting Caroline Walker Bynum in “The Future of European History,” Perspectives (April 1996): 1.

3. Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion (New York: Vintage Books, 1962).

4. Quoted in Richard Bernstein, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 50.

5. Joyce Appleby et al., Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1994), 294.

6. Ross Dunn, e-mail to the author, August 7, 1996.

7. Peter Stearns, Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 82.

8. John McKay et al., A History of Western Society, 5th ed., vol I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 87-89.

9. Mark Kishlansky et al., Civilization in the West, 2nd ed., vol I (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 72-75.

10. Lynn Hunt et al., The Challenge of the West, vol I (Lexington: D.C. Heath & Co., 1995), 57-8. See also Donald Kagan et al., The Western Heritage, 5th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995), 46, 88-90.

11. Gillis, 1.

12. Evelyn Edson, “The Historian at the Community College,” Perspectives (October 1996): 17.

13. In addition, Mark Kishlansky of Harvard indicated that his Western Civ text outsold his world text by roughly three to one. Personal correspondence.

14. Albert Craig et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations (New York: Macmillan, 1994).

15. John McKay et al., A History of World Societies, vol I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

16. As one of the authors happily reports in McKay, World Societies, preface, xix.

17. Stearns, 181-5.

18. Stearns, 188.

19. Ross Dunn, “Central Themes for World History,” in Paul Gagnon et al., eds. Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 220.

20. Hunt, 571.

21. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800, rev. ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1965), 7.

22. Stearns, 8.

23. Quoted in Dunn, “Central Themes,” 219.

24. Dunn, “Central Themes,” 216-7.

25. Stearns, 46.

26. Subtitled The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

27. “Inside the Stanford Mind,” Perspectives (April 1992): 8.

28. William McNeill, “Pursuit of Power: Criteria of Global Relevance,” in Gagnon, 107.

29. Theodore K. Rabb, “Old and New Patterns for the History of Western Civilization,” in Gagnon, 214.

30. Stearns, 105.

31. Fritz Stern, ed. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1956), 12.

32. Cited in Stearns, 80.

33. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Chance and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), xxi.

34. Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 21.

35. William McNeill, Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

36. McNeill, “What Do We Teach,” in Gagnon, 136.

37. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1956).

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