Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991


August 17, 1991


Kansas University students can learn much from the great thinkers and writers of the past, but shaping that knowledge into a college course is a serious challenge.

That's why the Western Civilization program at KU is considering shuffling different writing selections into the program and soon may be targeting more multicultural aspects as part of a reading list revision.

The program, started in 1945 by a committee of faculty from various departments and schools around the campus, is thoroughly examined every three years, and 1990-91 was the year for the most recent evaluation. The program's reading list is evaluated and revisions can then be made, said James Woelfel, a professor of philosophy who has served as director of the program since 1985.

WOELFEL SAID a governance committee consisting of six Western Civilization faculty members, a senior instructor, four graduate teaching assistants, one to two undergraduates and himself spent all last year re-examining and revising the goals and the themes of the program, as well as updating the course reading lists.

He said they will make a final decision on revisions in the middle of this school year to be implemented in fall 1992.

"I think there is a strong consensus among the faculty and the teaching assistants staff . . . that the program needs to expose students to some of the important classic influential writers . . . and works of Western civilization," Woelfel said. "At the same time, we recognize limitations."

Those include the limitations of the Western civilization canon works which commonly are considered the "representative" elements of a program or time period. However, Woelfel said, that means many voices that should be heard have not been heard. For about the past two decades, the program has offered writings by women and blacks, he said.

BUT IT IS time for growth. Instead of offering special weeks to examine those various points of view, he said the program will be integrating those works with the rest of the program. Thus, the governance board is trying to organize the second semester more thematically, with a diverse selection of readings worked in.

"We want to open up more to historically suppressed voices," he said.

Western Civilization is a general education requirement for most students in the College of Liberal Arts and journalism and social welfare students, Woelfel said. A two-semester program, it's also a stipulated option for filling the humanities requirement for the education and business schools.

The first semester focuses on the Ancient World through the Enlightenment. The second semester is on the 19th and 20th centuries.

Also, beginning this fall, a new textbook is replacing the program's student manual, Woelfel said. The text, "Patterns in Western Civilization," is co-edited by Sarah Trulove and Woelfel.

DESIGNED TO provide more comprehensive background information on the historical and intellectual context of primary sources the students will be reading, it includes background chapters by KU faculty and others, he said.

Because it's a required program for such a large number of students on campus, Western Civilization often faces enrollment problems.

Woelfel said seniors who have been unable to take the courses are given priority in enrollment. The courses are designed as sophomore-level courses for non-honors students and as freshman-level courses for honors students, but many times the backlog of students makes it impossible for some to take the courses during those preferred times, he said.

Woelfel is quick to point out that the KU program, unlike those at other universities, is not another name for a history course.

"IT'S A great books type of program, not a history course," he said.

The reading list serves as the "backbone" of the program's existence, Woelfel said, adding that the list is the only core readings list that KU students come in contact with during their years on Mount Oread.

The works examined during the first semester, according to the reading list for the 1991-92 year, include Sophocles, Aristotle, Luther, Galileo and Voltaire. The second semester features Locke, Frederick Douglass, Darwin and Freud, among others.

Woelfel said that, in addition to focusing on a variety of readings, Western Civilization also gives some attention to three main issues: sexism, racism and anti-Semitism. The students consider the treatment of those issues while reading the materials, offering the students another perspective, he said.

"It is important to have read to have some direct contact with authors . . . that have shaped the world they (students) have grown up in . . . or studied in," Woelfel said.

TOO OFTEN, he said, students don't appreciate that awareness that the Western Civilization program brings until years later.

"Often students have been out of school for awhile before they appreciate the value of having to take Western Civ," Woelfel said. "I think many students, while they're here, are vocation-oriented, and they often don't understand why they have to take Western Civ.

"Some . . . really discover it's interesting and worthwhile. It becomes an eye-opener and horizon-broadening experience."

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