12/12/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Who Needs to Study Western Civilization? We Do


Sad to say, rare is the day when we who analyze American higher education can report good news. Instead, we are consumed, and rightly so, with the crisis in which our institutions of higher learning find themselves: alarmingly low student-learning outcomes (36 percent of students demonstrate little to no increase in fundamental skills after four years of college); skyrocketing tuitions (440 percent in the past quarter-century, an increase greater than that of health-care costs), and crushing student-loan debt (at $1 trillion nationally, student-loan debt trumps total credit-card debt).

At the same time, there is some good news on the education front, and it comes from Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech University (TTU) is striving to be the most entrepreneurial public university in the Lone Star State. Having just attained National Research University Fund designation, and nearly at the end of a one-billion dollar capital campaign, TTU is now taking what may be the boldest step of all with its creation of a new Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. The Institute is tackling a critical educational task, one made all the more crucial by virtue of the fact that it is neglected by the majority of colleges and universities today: the rekindling of academic interest in the unique, world-transforming nature of Western Civilization.

Understandably, most of us go about our day-to-day lives without much thought as to how exceptional our civilization is, or how vast the bounty and freedom it offers. Most of us, having enjoyed these bounties and freedoms for so long, now take them almost for granted. The press and worries of the ordinary business of life tend to make interest in the frameworks that support it only a marginal concern.

While this attitude is natural enough for everyday citizens, much less excuse can be made for the current lack of interest -- indeed, the often mindless disparagement -- that emanates from many of our institutions of higher learning. The big questions about how we acquired the abundance, security, and liberties that Americans seem to enjoy almost as birthrights, about what forces and mindsets now work to sustain or undermine them, and about the West's future, are rarely taken up as such on American campuses. Worse, they sometimes are dealt with through dismissal, as if they didn't actually exist, or were obviously outweighed by the injustices, real, exaggerated, and imagined, that have accompanied their development.

Much of the Institute's mission will be to reopen academic discussion about these big questions in a fair-minded way. Texas Tech is one of the few major universities in the country that includes intellectual diversity as a principle of governance and that contains a real breadth of opinion among its faculty. Approved by the board of regents in 2008, the TTU statement on diversity concludes with the following: "We value the cultural and intellectual diversity of our university because it enriches our lives and the community as a whole, promoting access, equity, and excellence." Combined with its characteristically West Texan get-up-and-go and intellectual independence, Texas Tech would seem to be the perfect venue for this critically important project.

The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization will serve the main Lubbock campus with a high-profile speaker series and conferences about Western Civilization and the need to revive its study. It also will work with the faculty of TTU's Honors College to develop innovative courses and perhaps whole programs of study about Western civilization. Graduate programs and visiting fellowships for promising young scholars with an interest in big intellectual issues may also be in the cards in the future. Still more important, the Institute will reach out into the rest of higher education to promote the resurrection of this vitally needed programming across the four corners of American academe, and even the world beyond.

At least two aspects of the Institute's agenda render it "academically incorrect." First, its intellectual ambitions value breadth of interest over specialization-for-specialization's-sake; second, its working supposition -- about which it's nonetheless eager to entertain debate -- that the rise of the West has been overall very much a force for the good. Moreover, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that the Institute's work may well be seen by a certain stripe of "engaged scholar" as even a sinister force. But its intent is not just to talk about Western Civilization, but to embody, through its operation, the most appealing ideals underlying the Western achievement. Its mission statement sums it up well: "The Institute will provide forums for all those interested in Western Civilization -- whatever their view of its history and nature -- to engage in the reasoned, open, and informed debate that ennobles academic life and should always be at its heart."

To lead the Institute's work, Texas Tech has hired Dr. Steve Balch in the capacity of founding director. He has long been a champion of Western civilization programming, but is probably best known in academe as the founder and long-time head of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization notorious in the eyes of some in the academy for its opposition to such sacred cows as affirmative action, speech codes, and politicized curricula. Despite his many achievements in this leadership capacity, culminating in a National Humanities Medal conferred in 2007 by President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony, Dr. Balch (whom I've known and worked with in the NAS for many years) would have been persona non grata on many if not most of today's college campuses. The fact that he is not so at Texas Tech speaks volumes for the institution's refreshing openness, good sense, and willingness to recognize and make use of outstanding talent. And it speaks particularly well for TTU Chancellor Hance, who took an active interest in recruiting Dr. Balch, and has been an ardent champion the idea of the Institute for some time.

That said, it would be Pollyannaish not to recognize that the Institute faces a daunting challenge: "missionizing" the rest of American academe on behalf of a return to the study of a vastly important subject that it seems obstinately inclined to ignore. Under Balch, the National Association of Scholars conducted a study of the "Western Civ" requirement in colleges over the past fifty years. Titled, "The Vanishing West: 1964-2010," the study found that required Western Civilization survey courses, which were a staple up until the '60s, have today virtually disappeared from general education requirements across the country. Moreover, "even for history majors, Western Civilization surveys are rarely required." Finally, not only are "surveys of American history ... not included in general education requirements," but also, "American history survey requirements for history majors are rare."

Clearly, the stakes are very high. A great deal depends on the Institute's success in fulfilling its mission. Unless we as a people regain an understanding of what has made our civilization such a remarkable human achievement, such a bountiful source of blessings, such an exception in a world largely marked by poverty and oppression, we are likely to soon lose its breathtaking advantages. We cannot preserve and defend what we barely understand.

To be successful, the Institute will need the support not only of Texas Tech's alumni and long-term well-wishers, but also all us who understand what is at stake in our civilization's, and America's, survival. This is, in essence, what the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization is all about. Texans, but not only Texans, should rally enthusiastically to its colors.

Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His book, Investigating American Democracy (with Gary D. Glenn) was published in June by Oxford University Press.