The Western Civilization Requirement at UCSB:
Pro and Con Arguments, 1985-2004

The original justification for this requirement, which was created at that time, can be found in the 1985 GE Committee chairman's report [at that time area E was lettered area C] (link to full 1985 report). Warren Hollister wrote:

Our culture shapes our assumptions, defines our options, and governs the very categories in which we judge and perceive. It is so encompassing that we scarcely notice itóas a fish is unaware of the ocean in which it swims. The great majority of courses and majors offered by a modern university consist of strands in the Western cultural fabric. The natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities are all deeply rooted in Western civilization; the university is itself a Western invention. In the belief that students must be made aware not only of their Western heritage but of other cultures as well, Area C [now E] requires both a two-quarter sequence providing a broad introduction to Western culture and a course dealing with one or more non-western cultures. [emphasis added]

I note that no justification was provided explaining WHY double the number of courses was required to promote awareness of that topic, which is claimed to be a feature of most courses students take anyway, in contrast with awareness of other all other cultures, which can be obtained with a single course.

Western Civ. per se does NOT appear as an issue in the Nov. 1993 GE reform report (link). However, at that time the requirement that the two courses in area E-1 be adjacent to each other (A-B or B-C of an ABC series, but not A+C) was dropped. Scheduling and enrollment bottlenecks had been developing in the "B" sequences.

The Western Civ requirement was discussed by the UCSB GE Task Force at its meetings on: 3/3/00, 12/1/00, 1/19/01, and 5/9/01. (The links go directly to the relevant discussion, often only a paragraph.)

After the UCSB GE Task Force drafted its first report in April 2001, two members objected to the removal of the Western Civilization requirement (area E-1) so strongly that they felt compelled to draft a minority report (5/14/01 report). The majority of the Task Force drafted a response (6/11/01 response), which was endorsed by the Senate GE committee (6/6/01 assessment, see last paragraph).

Support for the minority report was voiced at an Oct. 16, 2001 Senate open forum on GE reform by members of the Philosophy and French & Italian departments. They argued that if we are to retain a "non-Western culture" requirement, then we should also have a symmetrical "Western" requirement.

When the Task Force again solicited feedback, several departments submitted responses. A member of the Religious Studies Department drafted a long memo in support of the minority report for a 1-course requirement (Feb. 2002 RS letter). Members of the department have indicated to me that the "unanimity" professed in this memo was for balance between "West" and world, not for Western Civ, which makes sense when one considers that the RS Western Civ course is not even required for RS majors, and that the department prides itself on its global scope.
Drama and Dance
submitted a simple statement of support for retaining the requirement (Feb. 2002 D&D e-mail), while
Art History
gave an in-depth discussion, critiquing both the Western Civ and Ethnicity requirements (Feb 2002 Art History e-mail).
An official response from the History Department was not submitted to the Task Force membership, but two strongly worded e-mails from history professors opposing a Western Civ. requirement were (2 history e-mails). At that time the history department conducted a mail ballot on a motion to support the minority report. The vote was 15:9 against the minority report. Comments were requested with the ballot responses. I (Marcuse) have in my possession the 13 "no" explanations and 4 "yes" explanations that were submitted, if anyone cares to see them.

These departmental responses were discussed by the Task Force at its 2/15/02 meeting. Although I have no staff notes for that meeting, I did find a handwritten note that I (Marcuse) wrote during that meeting, which reads as follows:

"Discussion of 4.2
The Task Force recognizes that a small but determined minority of faculty and departments feel strongly that a course focusing specifically on 'W.Civ' should be required of all students.
For various reasons the task force, supported by a majority of faculty and departments, feels that such a req. would be detrimental to the climate of intellectual pursuit we wish this University to embody."

I may have intended to give this to the Task Force chair to insert in section 4[.2] of the (second) task force report (link).

In Dec. 2002 the Task Force proposal was withdrawn from the legislative process because many faculty felt that certain compromises needed to be reworked. To that end the campuswide GE Work Group (which I now chair), with faculty, students, administrators, and a representative of the L&S faculty executive committee was created. This group affirmed that the parity solution was appropriate in several discussions. At the very first work group meeting in January 2003 we attempted to define what "Western" might mean:

3. Use of the term "Western" ("non-Western") in our GE curriculum.
Although in common usage (dozens of textbooks and courses attest to that), the term is ambiguous and erroneous. What is meant is Europe and the United States, perhaps Canada, but not central or South America. What about the experiences of millions of immigrants into this region: Is that part of Western Civilization? We should endeavor not to reify such a problematic term in our curriculum. (1/24/03 notes).

The issue was discussed again on 2/21/03, when I proposed my "market model" solution to this area: as many professors as supported an exclusively Western focus could offer courses in it, professors opposed to the exclusivity would offer their courses, and student would have a choice limited by the relative availability of enrollment slots in exclusively Western and "other" courses (2/21/03 notes; market model described in detail in the 4/25/03 interim report, see 4th paragraph beginning with "These preferences..."). This model was also a principle of the 1993-94 GE reform, see Nov. 1993 report, principle no. 2.

On 2/28/03 the Work Group had another substantive discussion of this requirement:

It was suggested that Area E be reorganized to solve some of the problems discussed above, possibly breaking it into 3 disciplines, such as Western thought and culture, non-Western thought and culture, and comparative thought and culture. In response to this suggestion, Western/non-Western was argued to be a false dichotomy, and "Western" an inappropriate and confusing misnomer. (full 2/28/03 minutes, go to bottom)

The notes about 3/3/03 Work Group meeting with the HFA chairs contain the following text (3/3/03 meeting notes):

Before time ran out completely, Al Wyner wanted to raise the issue of how HFA depts feel about proposed changes to the Western Civ req? Harold explained that one element of the TF proposal compromise was to remove sub-Area E-1 and make WCiv a special requirement. This will be one important aspect to clarify at the WGís next meeting with HFA.

On April 18, 2003 the minutes say (4/18/03 minutes, go to bottom):

There was discussion of ways to redefine the current Areas E-1 and E-2. It was suggested that a new title such as Culture and Thought could be used to expand this area beyond the Western/non-Western dichotomy, thereby opening it up to include, for example, courses that compare across two or more regions. We may wish to invite some faculty who teach in this area to discuss the possibilities with the workgroup.

From the May 2, 03 workgroup meeting (minutes, at bottom): "There was brief discussion of one history professorís suggestion that the terms Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric be used as alternatives to the current Western and non-Western labels."

On May 9, 2003 the work group held a marathon session in which we voted on each issue. Items 6-11 deal with the Western/non-Western issue (5/9/03 minutes). This is difficult to sum up, since we had been discussing various models in which ALL courses in area E were categorized as Western, non-Western, and other/comparative. Members who did not understand the utter impossibility of trying to implement such a categorization into core subareas resulted in confusion on question 8. However, on question 11, whether there should be parity, we were completely unanimous. Points 3e and f of the May 19, 2003 interim work group report reflect this unanimity (link). The point was not discussed again by the work group, but was explicitly included in the Oct. 30, 2003 discussion document, items no. 6 and 7 (link--in the on-line version hyperlinks to passages in original documents are included):

  1. Western Civilization. The GE work group discussed the GE task force's recommendation that the core "Western civilization" area E-1 be transformed into a special requirement. The GE work group recommends that this requirement should be made symmetrical to the present "non-Western culture" special subject requirement. Because of the problematic nature of the term "Western," we recommend renaming this requirement "European traditions."
  2. Non-Western culture (NWC). The May 2002 GE task force report eliminated this requirement entirely. The May 2001 report, section 4.2, proposed to integrate NWC into the core by requiring that all core courses attend to NWC "where appropriate." That proposal changes the nature of the requirement, which aims at in-depth study of a different culture. It would also mean that teaching would be shifted away from faculty with primary expertise on those cultures, to instructors whose research emphasis is elsewhere. That would reduce the quality of instruction on this subject matter.
    The GE work group is unanimous that the current requirement should remain as is, but with a new name. We suggest the term "non-European traditions," which does not reify the problematic term "Western" in our GE curriculum. "World Cultures" was also proposed. It offers the advantage of not defining a category by the absence of something. We welcome suggestions of alternative names for this requirement. (Information about comparison schools can be found on the GE work group website.)

At the 11/3/03 meeting with HFA chairs to discuss the recently distributed discussion document, no questions whatsoever were raised about this issue (e-mail summary of meeting). However, several of the departments that later responded formally and informally to that document did address this issue. The most detailed discussion was conducted in the history department (I have compiled these as a separate document: Nov. 2003 History department discussion of Western Civ). Classics proposed dispensing with both WCiv and NWC entirely, i.e. advocated the original GE Task Force proposal (link). Drama, English, and Linguistics made no mention of it. Film Studies objected to the division of the world into Western and its absence, but preferred "World Cultures" if that compromise was necessary (link). French was concerned whether their new E-1 series would still be included if E were renamed "historical studies," but made no mention of this issue (link). Music had no objection to our proposal, but prefered the name "World Cultures" (link). Philosophy only questioned the name change of Area E overall, but did not voice any objection to the proposal (link).

On Feb. 19, 2004, at the behest of the Undergraduate Council after my report that day about the GE Work Group's findings, I drafted a memo outlining a "first step in General Education reform" (link). It was centered on updating the core area definitions, and restructuring area E. I proposed a course of consultation, but the usual bureaucratic delays prevented their initiation until April. Then, at the request of the L&S Faculty Executive Committee, the original proposal to update all core areas (link) was withdrawn for further consultation, but this issue, discussed over and over and having achieved as much consensus as will ever be possible, was retained.

Thus in May 2004 the Undergraduate Council submitted legislation to change GE area E-1 from a "general subject area" to a "special subject" requirement. Proposed Area E legislation; legislation discussion paper. It will be considered in the 5/27/04 legislature session.

Bibliographic recommendation:
Part One of:
Ross E. Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), reproduces several important articles on the origins of "Western Civilization" courses, among them:

  • Introduction, pp. 1-11,
  • Lawrence W. Levine, "Looking Eastward: The Career of Western Civ," [1996], pp. 18-25, and
  • Harry J. Carman, "The Columbia Course in Contemporary Civilization," [1925], pp. 25-28.

See also the University of Illinois' guidelines describing their 1-course Western Civ requirement, which is paired with a "non-Western or US minority culture" course (link, scroll down to section 7.2 [2/2021: web archive version]). For a summary chart of our comparison schools' GE requirements, and links to their pages about them, see this table on the UCSB GE work group homepage. NO other UC campus has such a requirement, except for Eleanor Roosevelt college at UCSD, where it is paired with one "non-Western." UCSC has a one-course "Ethnic minorities/non-Western society" requirement, but NO parallel Western requirement. We stand alone as ethnocentric dinosaurs.

[Addendum Feb. 2021: the external links in that table of comparison schools are almost surely broken. Many may be retrieved from the web archive's Way Back Machine:]

Additions to this document are welcome! e-mail me:

added 5/13/04: I found the following summary of the major positions in this Western Civ debate in the introductory text on a history department colleague's 1993 syllabus for a Western Civilization series course:

Why Western Civilization?
College Western Civ courses were once as uncontroversial as Columbus and 1492. They were assumed to be a Good Thing--or at least not a Bad Thing. Since the 1960s, Western Civ has been under attack from the left as a Bad Thing; in the mid-1980s, the right leapt to defend it as the Best of All Possible Things. The controversy has abated somewhat in recent years, but it's far from over; nor is it likely to end as long as the main antagonists continue to believe so much is at stake. What is at stake? Both left and right frame the issues within a larger political context. The left sees Western Civ occupying a place in the humanities curriculum that it merits neither on intellectual nor moral grounds. To insist that such a course satisfy the General Education Requirement is not only to privilege one culture over others and one gender ("dead white males") over the other, but also, the left asserts, to deny the rightful claims of cultural diversity and ignore demographic realities in the United States today. It is to imply, if not to claim outright, the superiority of the "West"--meaning, by and large, Western Europe, North America and their former white colonial dependencies--over the rest of the world. The right couches the defense of Western Civ in terms of a heritage. If we are by no means all the descendants of Western Europeans, we are nevertheless, the right insists,"spiritual heirs," claimants to a set of ideas, institutions, and procedures originating in Europe centuries ago (this argument usually brushes aside the geographical embarrassment posed by the Middle Eastern origins of Judaism and Christianity, the two religions the right most fondly embraces). We risk losing the benefits of a great cultural inheritance, the argument runs, if we don't insist on giving Western Civ the central place in the curriculum it merits. For brevity's sake, I've oversimplified the arguments of both sides in the debate (indeed, more than two sides take part in it). I only want to suggest what a vexing and complicated issue the question of the place of Western Civilization in the curriculum and how it relates to the world beyond the university.

Nov. 30, 2004
Our delay in implementing our Western-Civ-optional reform makes it much more difficult for transfer students to fulfill their prerequisite courses. See this Oct. 21, 2004 e-mail and report from the Intersegmental Major Preparation Articulated Curriculum (IMPAC) project.

document created by H. Marcuse, 11/15/03, additions 5/13/04, 5/20/04, 11/30/04, link updated 2/1/2021
back to top, 2001 GE Task Force Report - minority report, GE workgroup homepage