Your Guide to Western Civ

Courtesy William Fredlund

In a careerist world where humanities departments may get short shrift, William Fredlund is proving the powerful draw of history, literature and art at his Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, a nonprofit in Cupertino. Here, evening classes are filled by mature students—engineers, doctors, musicians—who want to understand more about the making of the Western mind.

A scholar of the Italian Renaissance who studied and taught in Italy for 10 years, Fredlund wraps his learning in a skein of storytelling worthy of Boccaccio. Many students who started in 2002, when the institute opened, have never left—and they've encouraged Fredlund to extend the curriculum back to Homer and forward almost to our own times. This allows them to take an evolving course of study that provides the humanities education they didn't take in their youth—minus the essay-writing and exams. "People are ambitious and hardworking, but they know they're missing huge chunks of critical information necessary to be a whole person in 2010," Fredlund says of his student body.

"I'd heard of all these writers and artists, but they were just buzzwords to me," says George Clifford, who graduated from Berkeley with an engineering degree in the '60s and worked for Silicon Valley companies until his recent retirement. "I didn't know the significance—and felt a little left out, living with people who had liberal arts backgrounds."

Fredlund shares the institute's teaching load with Bruce Thompson, PhD '87, a lecturer in modern European history at UC-Santa Cruz. Classes—usually $335 per quarter—are structured to emphasize the far-reaching influence of key people and ideas on subsequent events. Fredlund delivers regular lectures on the visual arts, enriched by a vast library of digital images, while Thompson has offered courses on the history of the Jews, spying, film and the changing relationship of culture to the natural world.

DIANA REYNOLDS ROOME is a writer in Mountain View.