History of Civilization

An oral (and slightly revisionist) history of one of Oxy's most beloved programs

"This year the Social Science faculty of Occidental College is conducting an academic experiment which is a new departure for us in teaching method but in which we have great interest and high hopes. You are a member of the first class taught under this new system and it is very important that you understand what is going on so that we may have your full cooperation."

With that introduction (typed up, mimeographed, and handed to entering members of the Class of '51), the course that would come to embody the heart of an Oxy education was introduced in the fall of 1947. It was called History of Social & Intellectual Institutions that first year, and rechristened (with the addition of a second year of studies in the humanities) History of Civilization in the fall of 1948.

And it was taught in Thorne Hall—until September 1951, at least, when it moved to Johnson 200 for the next decade. History of Civ then returned to Thorne Hall in September 1961 for the duration of its run until the spring of 1970. (Thanks to Warry MacElroy '60, his fellow class ­secretaries from the History of Civ era, and a host of alumni who wrote to the magazine, in helping us construct this definitive timeline.)

Whatever the venue, it's hard to argue with the notion that "Civ" is one of the most beloved programs in Oxy's 127-year history. But why? It wasn't the early-morning class schedule, or a light reading load: The syllabus from the fall of 1959, for instance, was 78 pages long. More likely it was the wealth of information—from the foundation of global cultures to the world today—presented by a cross-section of faculty that grew in number from 16 to 35 over the course of two-plus decades.

And there are the moments that become the stuff of legend, such as when then-associate professor of history John Rodes, in the guise of Adolf Hitler, marched into Johnson 200 behind half a dozen football players and began a diatribe in German. "Within five minutes we were all behind him, shouting seig heil, even though he spoke not a word of English through the entire exercise," MacElroy recalled in 2001. "It was enlightening to see how easy it would be to get people to follow the pied piper."

So here's to those memories of pied pipers, comfortable chairs, and a fount of knowledge that would come in handy when traveling the world. "I saved my notes from those two years and have found them most valuable on occasion." writes George Klump '57. "While most of us griped about History of Civilization at the time, I believe most alumni of that era will agree that it was possibly the most valuable course we ever took."

"I certainly did attend History of Civ lectures (all of them) in Thorne Hall: September 1950 to May, 1952, Monday through Thursday. Fridays were discussion group days, plus exams held in small groups in classrooms in Johnson Hall."
Nancy Van Law Naumann '54

"The course that had the most influence on my life (by far!) was History of Civilization. It is too bad— maybe more like a tragedy —that they eliminated it."
Lyle Steadman '56

"I sat in the same place every year, in the balcony of Johnson with some SAE pals!"
Suzo McKellar '58

"Wow, this brings back memories of attending History of Civ classes in Johnson Hall. Yes, I remember Dr. Rodes' dramatics! I saw another side of him when I was part of his art history tour in summer 1958."
Debbie Brown '61

"The only thing I recall happening in Thorne was 'Great Balls of Fire' playing during a performance of Hamlet, much to Dr. Rodes' displeasure."
Ed Bates '61

"Civ was taught during the 1960-61 year in Alumni Chapel in Johnson, and it was difficult to sleep sitting in the wooden pews. Beginning in September 1961, Civ was moved to Thorne Hall, and it was difficult to stay awake sitting in the red velvet upholstered seats—particularly during the art lectures when the lights were turned down."
Land Wayland '64

"History of Civ is the reason that I chose to attend Oxy."
Linda West '65

"The totality of the information and the variety of the instructors was fantastic."
Greg Gazda '66

"Our History of Civ classes were all held in Thorne Hall, the most comfortable classroom on campus."
Susan James '67

"One of the best and most enduring experiences of my life."
Katherine Tyner '70

"Robert Winter was able to wake most everyone up with his incredible energy and enthusiasm, but the early-morning time slot was a challenge."
Courtney Lockwood '73