Western Civilization class may no longer be required at KU

Desire for flexibility cited as reason to make longtime standard optional

As Kansas University shifts to a new set of general education requirements, KU leaders hope to give students more flexible options. And that will likely mean students can choose to avoid some hurdles their predecessors had to clear, including a course familiar to most KU undergraduates: Western Civilization.

The reading-heavy two-semester introductory courses are centered on exposing students to some of the great books in the Western canon and usually involve smaller discussion sections where students hash out some of the big ideas from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day.

The two-semester sequence is required under existing rules to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Danny Anderson, KU’s dean of liberal arts and sciences, said a school committee is in the middle of revamping its own general education requirements to align with a universitywide effort.

Though that process is ongoing, he said, he is directing the committee to provide as many flexible options as possible. That likely means that while Western Civilization courses will continue to be offered and will likely fill a requirement of the new curriculum, they will be an elective course instead of a mandatory one.

“It’s not that Western Civilization will be dropped; what we’re doing is including it in a range of options,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that under today’s requirements if a student came to KU with no advanced placement credit, he or she would be spending well over half of his or her hours for graduation on general education requirements.

“Students today really want to advance more quickly in areas they want to specialize in, or they want to do second or third minors that will help them in the job market,” he said.

Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, director of KU’s humanities and Western Civilization program, said while the new requirements may mean fewer students take the introductory courses, some of the other courses in the department also may be included in the new requirements as electives. That potentially could increase attendance in those courses.

Faculty members in the program also are reviewing the introductory courses to align with the goals of the new KU curriculum, she said.

James Hillesheim, a retired KU professor of education, taught the required Western Civilization courses for years. He said he had heard that they were in danger of being dropped from the mandated courses that students had to take in liberal arts and sciences.

“I thought, uh-oh, there it goes,” he said. “It’s, to me, going in the wrong direction.”

He said the discussions in Western Civilization courses tackled a whole range of ideas and problems that come up again and again throughout life. They also expose students to Western culture and thought.

“I see it as trying to raise numbers of graduating students by lowering standards,” he said.

KU officials insist the new requirements will still ensure students are learning the skills that a university education is supposed to provide, but will merely emphasize different paths to get there.