The Future of Western Civilization is in the
Hands of UCSB Students

by Harold Marcuse, Nov. 29, 2004

This is the draft of an editorial I was going to send to the UCSB student newspaper in early 2005. I never had time to finish it, but if anyone's interested, here it is.
The faculty of the College of Letters & Science has been asked to submit an "advisory ballot" on this by January 17. Students can lobby their professors if they care!
It will come before the UCSB Faculty Legislature again for a final vote on Jan. 20, 2005, I think.
ee also:

Once known for its innovative teaching programs and world-class teachers, by the early 1990s UCSB was earning laurels as one of the nation's top party schools. Now it is staking its reputation on its Nobel laureates. We still have some world-class undergraduate programs and teachers, but it has been years since anyone really tried to organize them into a coherent structure that would promote learning, not hinder it.

It is an open secret that our current "General Education" program has fallen into a sad state. Once a means of ensuring that a UCSB bachelor's degree certified a well-rounded education, for many students GE has become a scavenger hunt they have to complete while trying to get into the great courses that made UCSB so attractive in the first place.

Oh yes, some students find that GE-required courses "change their lives" and help them to pick a major that will lead to a rich and fulfilling future. But far too many find that GE merely ensures that they have to sit through basic courses filled with other students who would rather be in the challenging courses that were closed before they even came near their GOLD appointment. Worse than that, there is a fair chance that the GE course will be taught by a professor who would rather be teaching a more interesting course of her/his own design. And even worse: There is a nearly 100% chance that the only meaningful instructor contact students in GE surveys will have is with a graduate student teaching assistant.

Don't get me wrong: Many of UCSB's GE courses are amazing educational experiences, and many of UCSB's TAs are excellent teachers. But it is also well known, among professors and administrators as well as among students, that each quarter thousands, yes thousands of students sit through low-rated required courses. (Professors call them "service courses.")

In most GE areas students can also choose non-survey-service courses. Except one. One whose low mean ESCI scores are matched by its high enrollments. One which is, in the opinion of a majority of faculty on this campus, the most intellectually outdated. Which? Area E-1, Western Civilization.

For more than three years, GE reform committees have overwhelmingly recommended eliminating this subcategory. Last May the faculty legislature even voted to abolish it. To no avail. A trenchant minority is determined to uphold eurocentrism in spite of all of the intellectual and pedagogic evidence that it is the lowpoint of UCSB's GE program. They just found a legal hair to split so that they could delay the implementation even longer.

Why are they doing this, and what can we do about it?

[Continued tomorrow: {note 1/11/05: I got through the editing of my first draft only up to here}]

The Solution: How UCSB students can fix Western Civilization

Yesterday I described how UCSB's General Education program has deteriorated into a haphazard set of mostly high-enrollment courses that too many students experience as an obstacle hindering their pursuit of a quality education. And why nothing will change someone pushes to change it: There is no administrative leadership in charge, and professors generally resist change, especially when things appear to suit their needs the way they are.

The obvious advocates of change would be the students who are denied the opportunity to choose from among UCSB's best courses. But most students are here for four years or less, which isn't much time to experience the problem, figure out what needs to be changed, organize to implement it, and see it through to completion. I have worked with several generations of AS presidents and representatives, only to experience time and again that they move on before we have been able to overcome the inertia of faculty complacency.

However, right now there is a window of opportunity. Last spring the Faculty Legislature passed a small but crucial improvement to GE. It removed the subarea E-1 "Western Civilization," so that B.A. students can choose their three area E courses from among ANY of the courses listed in the entire area. No longer do two courses have to come from the same sequence of a handful of courses under E-1. So if you take, say, History 4C and decide you don't like the historical approach, you can switch to Art History 6A or Philosophy 20A or any other listed course of your choice.

And not only that. The required number of area E courses that had to focus on Western Civ was reduced from two courses to one. So now if you don't like History 4 or Religious Studies 80, you can take Chinese 33, German 49, or Classics 100. Sound too good to be true? Well, if we leave it up to a handful of curmudgeons it will be.

When the GE reform Task Force first proposed abolishing Western Civ completely in May 2001, a small "dissenting minority" argued that UCSB students (BA only) should have to take at least one college-level course about "the West." In order to move on, the rest of the faculty compromised and agreed to require that any one GE course focus on Western Civ (even though we couldn't agree on what it was).

This reform was passed by the Faculty Legislature last May.

In the three following years this issue was discussed at length among the faculty. This is too boring to recount, but it is important, since lack of discussion now provides the supposed reason why students are still being required to take two Western Civ courses. The last defenders of must-have-two-Western-civ courses on campus are still holding up implementation of the legislation because they claim they didn't have time to think through the ramifications of the reduction. (If anyone is interested, a memo I wrote last spring describes in detail the many campuswide opportunities for discussion and comment. See:

So what is the real story behind the obstructionists?

A few of them may truly feel that there has not been enough discussion of this change, that proper channels of discussion were not followed. However, it will be obvious to anyone reading my memo summarizing our efforts to get discussion going that these people cared so little about GE in general, and this issue in particular, that they ignored the many opportunities to comment on it. After the May 2001 minority report, in October 2001 and February 2002 a couple of small departments commented that they agreed that a one-course Western Civ requirement should be kept. The GE reform workgroup decided that in the interest of balance a one-course requirement could be kept, and we proposed this in a discussion document circulated to all affected divisions and departments in October 2003. There was no further inputt on the issue.

The real problem is that area E-1 has turned into a kind of feeding trough smaller departments can use to keep their course enrollments up, and thereby fund their graduate programs with guaranteed TAships. Even if the courses don't attract enough students on their own merits, they will still have substantial enrollments because 1) there simply aren't very many courses offered in Western Civ, and 2) once you take one, you absolutely have to take another from that department (unless you're a BS, BFA or BM student--then you're exempt from Western Civ altogether).

This lock-in effect has allowed some department to offer sub-par courses. We've studied the ESCI scores over time and find that students rank certain courses and even certain whole sequences significantly lower than others. Time after time after time. And I mean significantly lower. (I'd love to show you the data, but the affected departments would scream privacy violations.)

Now don't blame us faculty. While some of us love to run a three-ring circus with 500+ students and up to a dozen TAs in one of UCSB's more cavernous lecture halls, there are others who would prefer to get to know our students' names and explore with you the topics we find most interesting. We do not think pontificating a eurocentric world view for you to discuss for an hour a week with your TA constitutes a meaningful part of a college education. Departments have a hard time finding enough faculty willing to teach these same old courses over and over, so they often hire inexperienced lecturers and even graduate students to do it. Even for experienced teachers a large lecture course is a hard beast to tame. You've sat though those courses, you know what I mean.

Well, who's going to do something about it?

Don't expect too much from your professors. Although we all love our students and care about your education, we care about ourselves more, and our graduate students stick around for a lot longer than undergraduates do. If not enough of you take courses in our department, positions will be cut. Who wants to be a member of a dwindling department? And if we can't get funding for our graduate students from anywhere else, we will work to protect their teaching slots.

So the buck stops with you. This month [maybe in January 2005] the faculty of L&S will be polled about changing Western Civ. Now, mind you, a solid majority of us already voted to change it, but the forces of reaction will be screaming that our departmental enrollments and TA allocations are at stake. Actually, this is nonsense. Only the departments offering substandard courses might be affected--if word gets out about how bad they are. (Ever wonder why you never see any of that ESCI data you diligently produce at the end of each quarter?)

But when money for TAships is being cut anyway, and graduate fees are going up anyway, many of us may choose to err on the side of keeping things the way they are. You need to tell your AS representatives that you want this change. You need to tell your professors whether your Western Civ courses were the high point of your UCSB education. You need to let us faculty know whether you want the freedom to choose any area E courses, and not have to come back for a second quarter of a course that didn't work for you, for whatever reason.

The initiative to delay and perhaps thwart the implementation of the opening of Area E was spearheaded by ten professors who submitted a petition to the faculty legislature on November 4. They are the ones who should hear your voices most of all.

document created 11/29/04 and posted by H. Marcuse, 1/11/05
back to top, Western Civ (Area E-1) History Page, GE workgroup homepage