Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Your vote: Western classics vs. social change

Is it more important to teach undergraduates "the classic works of Western Civilization" or "to become agents of social change." American faculty have weighed in. Now it's your turn.


A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a survey of more than 22,500 U.S. professors which asked, among other things, what the professors’ goals were in terms of classroom instruction. The survey was conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

The survey contains reams of data, but the Chronicle article focussed on the percentage of professors who thought it was important to teach undergraduates “the classic works of Western Civilization” as compared to the percentage who thought it was important to teach them “to become agents of social change.”

I am purposefully avoiding indicating which of these two options received more support by the professors, because I’d like our readers to chime in free of external bias (see the poll below). I realize these two options are neither dichotomous – in the sense of being opposites – nor mutually exclusive, but your responses will be interesting nevertheless.

The Chronicle article pondered whether how a person responded is indicative of his or her political leanings – is a proclivity towards the “classics” a more conservative posture compared to the liberal-tinged position of supporting social change?

In the article, Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA, had this to say: “The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition. … It’s also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change.”

Here’s the poll. I encourage you to vote, and to share your thoughts.

[poll id=”2″]

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Robie Liscomb / March 18, 2009 at 19:25

    Teaching the classics can be a great way of preparing students to become agents of social change. Have you read Tim Lilburn’s Going Home?

  2. Todd Pettigrew / March 25, 2009 at 14:35

    I suspect many people, myself included, will see this as a false dichotomy. But if I have to choose, I choose the classics because “social change” implies a concern for today’s particular problems, while instruction in the enduring works of history gives one a broad context for whatever unforeseen problems the future may hold.

  3. George Tillman / March 25, 2009 at 15:34

    As someone who is not attached to an institution, but whose work relates to them, and to activities that would be classified as “social change”, I agree with the two above. Of course, how the “classics” are defined and taught is a further question. But my own experience is that they can help students develop habits of mind that make for good citizenship: critical thinking and an understanding of the history and intellectual groundings of values. Society needs people who can think clearly and debate respectfully.

Click to fill out a quick survey