At the heart of the most recent political correctness controversy at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where I am a graduate student, is the proposed “Great Books Certificate Program.” The program, first presented to the Course and Curriculum Committee last November, is the brainchild of a group of 23 professors headed by Dr. David Mulroy of the Department of Classics and Hebrew Studies. The goal of the program is “to provide guidance to students seeking a rigorous liberal arts education. It provides an incentive for such students to select courses that traditionally compose the nucleus of a liberal arts education and are still considered especially valuable by a large number of faculty members, i.e., courses in foreign language, mathematics, the history of Western civilization, and in the great books, i.e., original works widely regarded to be of fundamental importance within various disciplines.” Other certificate programs exist for students completing a voluntary regimen of courses dealing with various racial and ethnic minorities.

While “Great Books” programs like this one were once common in the liberal arts, many faculty members at UWM see no merit in them. This view manifested itself in the three-to-two vote against recommending the program to the Associate Dean’s Office for approval. Predictably, a key point of contention, in the words of Professor Campbell Tatham of the English Department, was the “problematic” nature of the whole notion of “great books.” Professor Joyce Kirk of the History department complained that the program was “too Western.”

Fortunately for the students, the issue attracted the notice of the student press as well as the Milwaukee Sentinel. Sentinel staff writer Dave Tianen listed among his “Top Ten reasons why Great Books classes do not belong at UWM”: because they “soak up valuable classroom space needed for teaching Klingon” and because “all those old dudes like Shakespeare and Chaucer talk funny.” In the typical fashion in which such snafus are handled, the Course and Curriculum Committee determined that the vote was invalid due to the lack of a quorum and was scheduled for reconsideration in December.

On December 5, each side took its case before the full committee. The opponents of the measure, now led by Professor Gregory Jay of the English and Comparative Literature department, submitted a statement endorsed by 19 faculty members, 11 of whom were associated with the English department. In that statement, Professor Jay identified three principal criticisms of the proposal: one, the nature of “greatness”; two, the proposal did nothing to assure that the program would not focus exclusively on “Western Civilization”; three, the overlap with another proposal offering an alternative liberal arts degree featuring “more diversity in subject matter” and “not based on the debatable category of ‘greatness.'” Among Professor Jay’s specific concerns were the possible exclusion of books by “women and people of color” and the lack of a requirement that “develops the student’s knowledge of non-European history, civilization, or ‘great books.'”

Proponents of the program responded that as recently as 1991 the English department offered such courses as “Great English Writers: The Anglo-Saxons Through the 18th Century” and “Great American Writers: Colonial Times Through the 19th Century.” Proponents also argued that the Western Civilization requirement was based on the fact that the “history of the so-called Western world is uniquely well documented. There is no comparable set of records to put in their place.” Of course, this argument cuts two ways: If Chinese or Korean history were better documented, should UWM students perhaps concentrate on “Eastern Civilization”?

One of the individuals who came out in favor of the program was instructor John Boatman of the American Indian Studies and Ethnic Studies Certificate Program. In a letter to the Course and Curriculum Committee, Mr. Boatman stated, “Although I support [and teach courses which satisfy the requirement for] ‘Cultural Diversity,’ I also believe that it is essential that our students are presented with ample opportunities to be educated in such intellectual arenas as that which would be available through the ‘Great Books’ Certificate Program and the related ‘Great Books’ Seminar course.

On February 14, the faculty committee sponsoring the Great Books program responded to its critics. In an 11-page memo to the curriculum committee, David Mulroy defended the decision to use the term “great,” addressed the perceived “Western bias,” and clarified the differences between the “Great Books” program and a complimentary “Alternative Program in Liberal Learning.” As a result of the memo, the Curriculum Committee voted 8-4 to approve the program.

Critics of the program have not given up, however. Having passed the curriculum committee, the program must now be approved at a general faculty meeting on April 19. Opponents of the program have already begun an aggressive campaign to pack the meeting with their ideological soulmates. Supporters, too, have begun rallying their troops, and the most heated debate is probably yet to come. Although faculty meetings are typically attended by fewer than a dozen individuals, the meeting on April 19 was expected to draw well over a hundred angry professors. It is a telling sign of our times when the most fervid debate on a college campus is whether to support the teaching of our civilization’s greatest works.