In 1852, the University of Pennsylvania expected all candidates for admission to have gained enough familiarity with Greek and Latin to read Caesar, Horace, Xenophon and Homer. Men who met this stipulation and subsequently advanced to sophomore standing read Putz’s Modern History, which analyzed the past primarily as a succession of actions decided upon by a few illustrious personages and carried out by the nameless masses.
The Moral Philosophy curriculum given to the junior class included Evidences of Christianity as a textbook. In 1794, William Paley, an Anglican clergyman, wrote and published this philosophical treatise. While Paley was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind — he graduated at the top of his class from Christ’s College, Cambridge — his writings are not presented alongside any works from philosophers with differing viewpoints.
Other sources from the period illustrate that the University of Pennsylvania was not unique in its commitment to the “what” over the “why.” America in the 1850s was yet to see the Civil War or the perils of the 20th century; the expectation for the ruling classes to look and act a particular way was readily spoken of. Though the particularities of the value system differed regionally, the elite used education to ensure the stability of the social order across the U.S. For the financially disenfranchised, higher education could either be a ticket up or an insurmountable obstacle.
Despite the time gap, change in the educational system has been creeping slowly. Many American school curriculums still revolve around Western intellectual output and ideology, fostering the outmoded belief that world history culminates in the dominance of Western civilization and the white male within a rigid way of thinking. Yet students must be taught to think critically about their education if they are to ever grow into adults with the ability to think critically about our world.
Intellectual works such as Paley’s should not be forgotten. Likewise, a complete secularization of the educational system is not only unnecessary but detrimental, for beliefs and spirituality are as much a part of human existence as subordinate clauses and neutralization reactions. But students must be taught the skills required to analyze the content they are given.
This is not to say that there has been no progress made. The New York State standard for World History necessitates that ninth graders learn not only about the Classical Greek city states, but also the Han Dynasty and the Mayans. African civilizations, traditionally under-studied, also make an appearance. However, other state standards still bear evidence of a West-centric worldview; in the current high school standard for Texas schools, the U.S. annexation of Hawaii is termed “expansion” while similar activities of Russia and other nations are defined as “imperialism” or even “aggression.”
Why not teach impressionable and inquisitive children “how,” show them “what” and trust that they can ask themselves “why?”