Seaside, Florida, is one of the exemplary achievements of New Urbanism, the school of architecture that favors mixed commercial/residential spaces, common grounds such as the old village green, and pedestrian-friendly roadways. Seaside became especially famous as the setting for the 1998 film The Truman Show, which portrayed the town as an ideal environment for middle-class life.
In Seaside’s town square is a building with a solid three-story wall, featuring a giant mural of a distinguished-looking old man with a pensive look on his face. He seems out of place. Kids stack their bikes at the foot of the wall. Trailers selling sno-cones, doughnuts, barbecue, and hot dogs are just across the drive. Nobody wears a coat and tie as the man on the wall does.
His name is Vincent Scully, longtime professor of art history at Yale University and, for a time, at University of Miami. Scully’s visage presides over Seaside because many of the town’s architects took his classes at Yale, where they encountered the masterworks of the past. In his courses, Scully spoke of these works as if they were entirely pertinent to the modern world. His instruction was formative for the New Urbanism. (If you stroll around Seaside, you can see evidence of architectural history embedded in the “beachy” designs and colors and materials.)
He was an electrifying lecturer. An account of the mural in the local paper says, “His undergraduate lectures at Yale were always standing-room-only.” None of the people wandering around the town square now know who Scully was, but everything that draws them there can be traced back to him—to Scully lecturing Seaside’s creators, in their 20s, in “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present.”
I first visited Seaside more than 20 years ago, touring it with a friend who had a cottage in Grayton Beach a mile away. In fact, this was when The Truman Show was being filmed. The town wasn’t yet complete, but the moment you crossed the boundary line you knew you had entered a visionary space. The houses, the layout, the green spaces, the small shops . . . they were the result of an outlook in which form followed human need, not just function. It took an architectural historian from Columbia whom I met a few years later to explain to me who Scully was and how he shaped the Seaside project.
Which makes what happened at Yale University this year especially dismaying. It’s a familiar tale: “Introduction to Art History,” a longstanding course in a Western Civ tradition taught over the decades by renowned professors and packed with eager students, undergoes a diversity revision. Too many white males, too Eurocentric, too neglectful of non-Western voices and cultures. Time to take it down.
The prototype episode is Stanford 1987, when Jesse Jackson led 500 students in a march around campus protesting the general education requirement that was fulfilled by the course “Western Culture.” They chanted as they marched, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” One year later, the faculty complied, replacing Western Culture with a bundle of offerings that included a sufficient amount of non-Western culture and works by women and people of color. (An important new report from the National Association of Scholars, authored by Stanley Kurtz, recounts the Stanford episode in detail and explains how Western civilization disappeared from Stanford and every other major campus in the decades that followed.)
The chair of Yale’s Art History department mouths the standard rationale. He told the Yale newspaper that non-Western cultures are “equally deserving of study” and that singling out the Western tradition is “problematic.” It’s as if he’s reading the talking points handed out to every humanities department chair since 1987. From now on, Yale will replace the old survey course with thematic courses such as “Art and Politics” and “Global Craft” and “Sacred Places.” They will all be diverse. We may be sure, too, that they will include the premise that Western Civ is a hidebound conception.
I don’t bother to debate the diversifiers any more about the value of Western Civ curricula. They know what’s politically correct, and they follow the herd. My experience, too, has been that their learning in the tradition is fairly shallow. Besides that, I’ve spent too many hours losing the battle again and again—in committee rooms at my own universities and while working on projects for College Board, Common Core, and other national organizations—not to realize the war is over. The multiculturalists won, the traditionalists lost.
But let’s understand the nature of their victory correctly. When Stanford replaced Western Culture with a multiculturalist course, most of the students didn’t like it. A curriculum review six years later found that 72 percent of the students rated it poorly. It wasn’t the diversity that bothered them, but the incoherence of the offerings—a little of this culture, a little of that, something old, something new . . . Stanford eventually scrapped it. (The Kurtz report has all the documentation for the outcome.)
It’s a story that has been repeated across the country. As the humanities have become more diverse and less Western, enrollment has plummeted. Since 2011, the number of majors in history has fallen more than 30 percent, with the number of English, philosophy, and foreign languages majors falling more than 20 percent. The Rainbow Coalition at Stanford trashed the Western Culture course, but in fact it was one of the most popular undergraduate experiences at that tech-heavy campus. And now it’s gone. An effort by conservative students at Stanford three years ago to revive it was met by charges of racism and xenophobia.
The same decline will happen at Yale. Does anybody expect that “Art and Politics” will inspire the creation of something as beloved as Seaside? Do the teachers think it will draw more sophomores to the major? These professors may enjoy their multiculturalist virtue as they introduce fewer students to Giotto’s chapel and The Raft of the Medusa, but they will never see their countenances memorialized in the public square.
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.