A Brief History of the Humanities Program
Humanities and KU: Traditions and New Directions
February 11, 2016
It’s an honor and a pleasure to be invited to speak on this “milestone” occasion. In my remarks I want briefly to explain and reconcile what might seem to be a paradox: We’re simultaneously commemorating 70 years of the Western Civilization curriculum, and removing the reference to it in the name of the program.
The story of the changes that brought us to this point coincides to a large degree with the story of my 25 years as director. I became the director of the Western Civilization Program in 1985, its 40th year, tasked with implementing a strong recommendation from a College Task Force on General Education to make fundamental changes. “Western Civ” was inaugurated immediately following World War II to insure that KU students had at least a basic exposure to the ideas that had shaped the world they were living in.
It was an independent interdisciplinary humanities program in which students read from influential works of the Western world, met once a week in small discussion classes over two semesters, and had to pass a comprehensive exam in order to graduate. Discussion classes were led by GTAs, by faculty doing it on a voluntary overload basis, and by interested professional persons from the Lawrence community. Students who felt sufficiently self-motivated had the option of learning the material on their own and taking the comprehensive exam.
Originally a university-wide general education requirement, in 1985 and until 2013 it remained a requirement for the degree programs of about 70% of KU undergraduates. For decades Western Civ was widely known outside the university as a distinctive KU undergraduate tradition; and among generations of KU alumni as an educational experience that had been either transformative or something they had endured and survived.
As part of the reforms of general education in the College in the mid-1980s, the Western Civilization Program was urged to add regular faculty positions, require lectures as well as discussion for all students, and adopt a background textbook. With the help of an NEH grant, we began to make these changes. Then in 1997, Western Civ united with the Humanities Program, a small interdisciplinary degree program that had been in existence for exactly 50 years.
Western Civ gained a degree program and a number of courses listed under the Humanities rubric; Humanities gained a larger structure and faculty positions, more students, and greater visibility. The union itself attracted more faculty and resources to what was now the Humanities & Western Civilization Program, and set us on the path that has led to where we are now.
In the first decade of the 21st century the Humanities side of the program was burgeoning in a variety of directions. A notable development was the establishment, in 2003, of the Peace & Conflict Studies program, created by a dozen faculty from nine humanities and social sciences departments who decided to house it in HWC. PCS is now a concentration in the major, a minor, and a graduate certificate.
The years since 2003 have seen a number of other expansive developments under the aegis of Humanities, among them the addition of new faculty with interdisciplinary backgrounds; new courses and emphases such as World Literature; programs reaching out to other departments and fields such as the annual Mid-America Humanities Conference, showcasing student research and open to students from around the country.
In the course of its history those of us involved in the Western Civ curriculum actively committed ourselves to inclusiveness and diversity—in the readings and the program textbook, the approaches to the primary sources, the training of instructors, and the programs we sponsored and co-sponsored. The Humanities side of the program, by its very nature both interdisciplinary and global, and encompassing the perspectives and methods of all the humanities fields, lent itself naturally to an even wider inclusiveness and affirmation of diversity.
Since the development of the KU Core beginning in 2010, the present director, Sandi Zimdars-Swartz, has led us in making the extensive changes demanded by the “new world” of undergraduate education, which has meant redefining ourselves in the widest and most inclusive way possible. (Our major, our degree program, by the way, has always been called simply “Humanities.”) We decided to let the name “Humanities” stand for all we do. And that still includes the two Western Civ courses, which have a secure place in the curriculum fulfilling multiple goals of the KU Core!