Development of the Western History Curriculum
By Robert Kajiwara
Done in partial completion of the Ph.D. in History degree at Liberty University
For many millennials, the idea of “group project” or “collaborative work” is terrifying. Millennials generally like some amount of socialization in work and life, so long as it does not interfere with their own work or creative processes, which “group work” is often known to do.1 A group, when comprised of people who work well together, have similar goals and complementary work styles, can often be extremely efficient and fruitful. However, group work in schools and some jobs are usually comprised of randomly assigned individuals with a varying degree of interests, visions, motivations, and abilities, and usually produces poor results while leaving few people happy. It is often slow, cumbersome, and ineffective, thus leaving many millennials with a negative overall impression of group work.
With that being said, one subject of historical study that might be well-suited for collaborative research would be the development of the Western history curriculum, which is itself a sort of large-scale collaboration with few easy answers and a plethora of controversy. Among the sources I had to select from were several that discussed this issue.
I was surprised to learn that during the late 1980s through the mid-90s there was a movement at Stanford University that wanted to do away with Western culture.2 I was just a little kid when these things were occurring. Although I am well known for being critical of imperialism and colonization done by both Western and non-Western nations, I have never advocated for the destruction of Western culture, or any other culture for that matter. On the contrary, many non-Western peoples, including both Ryukyuans and Hawaiians, have utilized some elements of Western culture to our advantage. We of course advocate for the preservation and promotion of our own respective cultures, while utilizing elements of other cultures as appropriate and altering them to fit our own needs. Thus, very few Ryukyuans or Hawaiians would advocate for the complete removal of all Western cultural elements from our societies, and would consider such a prospect to be excessive and extreme.
To be clear, there are some undesirable elements of Western culture that have forced themselves upon both Ryukyuans and Hawaiians, though this is the result of Western imperialism and colonization, not on Western culture. Some might argue that Western culture in part encourages imperialism and colonization, though this is a very general statement, and certainly not all aspects of Western culture are part of this. In my opinion, it is thus much more accurate to say that imperialism and colonization are wrong, and not Western culture as a whole.
The debate regarding Western history curriculums has been complex and messy.3 In 1979 Yale University returned $20 million that had been donated by Lee Bass for the study of Western Civilization.4 The money was ostensibly returned due to resentment of the excessive focus on Western Civilization in university history departments, and a desire to broaden Yale’s curriculum. As someone who focuses on Asian and Pacific Island studies, I am certainly in favor of a broadened curriculum and offering more courses on non-Western civilizations. But I do not think that means that studies on Western civilization have to be curtailed and that universities should not accept donations for its study. It is certainly possible to incorporate both Western and non-Western studies in a curriculum without compromising depth and quality. The study of one does not have to mean the neglect of the other.
I think it is a mistake to issue blanket statements like “Western culture needs to go,” because it is extremely general, does not actually get to the root of issues, and “throws the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak. During a recent trip to the United Nations my colleagues and I attended a panel presentation on sexual violence. One of my female colleagues who is well-known for her advocacy against sexual violence was disappointed when one of the panelists stated that she “hates men.” I wasn’t offended because I understood the context of the statement, and I try to empathize with the pain of oppressed and marginalized demographics. But my female colleague pointed out that though sexual violence is predominantly targeted at women, it does also impact some men, and in any case, general statements like “I hate men” tend to be counterproductive and even harmful towards addressing issues, making progress, and protecting the rights of oppressed demographics.
Likewise I think it is unhelpful to make generalized statements when planning a history curriculum. Students should have a broad understanding of World history, with a variety of options to study different civilizations from around the world. In my opinion students should be required to have at least a little bit of experience studying a culture outside of their own in order to provide greater empathy and cross-cultural experience. This is standard practice in most countries, though it tends to be lost in the American history curriculum. Doing so will better prepare students to know how to handle cross-cultural interactions, will provide fuller, more accurate, and more nuanced views of history, and will improve the overall quality of historical studies.
Kaylin, Jennifer. Bass, Yale, and Western Civ. Yale Alumni Magazine. Summer 1995. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/95_07/bass.html.
Machen, J. Gresham. Testimony before the House & Senate Committees on the Proposed Department of Education. 1926. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: https://reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/christian_education/Machen_before_congress.html
Nash, Gary. “Reflections on the National History Standards.” National Forum. Summer 1997. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mlassite/discussions261/nash.html.
Sacks, David O., Thiel, Peter A. “How the West Was Lost at Stanford.” Independent Institute. 1 September 1995. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=5205
Windle, Benjamin. 8 Innovations to Leading Millennials. The Thrive Co. 2019.
1Windle, Benjamin. 8 Innovations to Leading Millennials. The Thrive Co. 2019.
2Sacks, David O., Thiel, Peter A. “How the West Was Lost at Stanford.” Independent Institute. 1 September 1995. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=5205
3Nash, Gary. “Reflections on the National History Standards.” National Forum. Summer 1997. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mlassite/discussions261/nash.html.
4 Kaylin, Jennifer. Bass, Yale, and Western Civ. Yale Alumni Magazine. Summer 1995. Retrieved 7 December 2019 from: http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/95_07/bass.html.