“Great Books” and Western Civilization Courses

Courses like Legacies of the Ancient World and Challenges of Modernity were very common in American colleges and universities in the 20th century. Many were organized around a list of texts (a “canon”) that were presented as “the best that has been thought and said.” These “Great Books” courses had much in common with “Western Civilization” courses, which were usually premised on the claim that “the West” could be understood as a single, coherent, continuous cultural tradition, defined in opposition (and usually as superior) to “the East.” These courses also often presumed that all American college students saw “Western Civilization” as their civilization.

In the 1980s, student-led critiques of these courses became widespread. Many colleges and universities radically revised or eliminated these courses from their curricula in the ensuing years, though many did not; debates over these issues continue at many institutions.

Posts in this category will explore these debates as they have played out in American higher education over the past forty years. They may examine particular flashpoints, documents, advocacy groups, websites or other university curricula.

Students protest Reed College’s Humanities 110 course in 2017.