One of the most popular Alumni/Alumnae College courses at the recent Reunion weekend was “Whatever Happened to 'Western Civilization'?” a panel discussion led by Susanne McNally of the history faculty, Terry Martin '66 and Eugen Baer of the philosophy faculty.
After an introduction by Mara O'Laughlin '66, a former William Smith admissions officer whose husband, Frank, taught the course almost from its inception, the panelists talked about the premise of the course. (While Martin took Western Civ as an undergraduate, neither McNally nor Baer taught it.)
McNally, who joined the faculty in 1972, described the course as illustrating “an unusually coherent moment,” in U.S. history: post-World War II America, known as “the best place to be.” The nation's generosity was exemplified by the Marshall Plan, which provided relief to millions in Europe; and the G.I. Bill, allowing thousands of returning veterans to pursue a college degree.
Another view of the era, however, was that 6 percent of the world's population was consuming 25 percent of its resources, and as is so often the case, the view of “development” and “progress” depended on where one stood.
McNally and others noted that while a single narrative increases confidence, those hearing the narrative may not realize that it isn't the full story.
Baer reminded the standing-room-only audience in the Geneva Room that “the voice of the other might be more important than the voice of the self,” and that the stories told in Western Civ — and other courses — “give meaning to our lives.”
Several in the audience praised the course's foundation and the shared experience that students took from it to other courses, and to life.