Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
— Chanted by Stanford University protestors in 1988
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What has Western Civilization ever done for the world? — Question posed by a poster produced by ProtestWarrior.com
If an essay on the essentialness of teaching Western Civilization is needed for Christian classical educators, the ramifications may be too much to bear. Nevertheless, even if this preaching is for the choir, defending the need for instruction in Western Civilization should still prove profitable for as Elizabeth Kantor states, if “you had to name one thing that the vandals who’ve seized control of our college campuses don’t want their students to learn, it would be Western civilization.”1 Sadly, parents must now assume that freshman studies, if it includes Western Civilization at all, will do so only in the form of criticism, denigration, and blame. Therefore, if the precious gifts bequeathed to this generation by their forefathers are to be retained, elementary and secondary educators across the country have a lot of work to do. As such, let these words serve as an encouragement to fulfill duty and these facts as some defense against the postmodern barbarians that wish to dismiss Western Civilization altogether.
Arguing to abolish such courses, historian Page Smith actually provides a valuable working definition of “Western Civilization” that encapsulates its precious nature. He wrote in 1990 that the Classical Christian Consciousness was the fruit of two thousand years of a fascinating and intricate process. At its center was, first, a set of deeply held convictions about man and society and man’s relation to the gods held by the Greeks. This culture may be said to have virtually invented abstract thought. It was followed by the “driving force of Western Civilization,” the medieval Church, the Renaissance, and, most important of all for an understanding of the modern world, the Protestant Reformation. To put the matter as succinctly as possible: when you agitate for Western Civ programs, you are asking the Secular Democratic Consciousness to teach the Classical Christian Consciousness, and that is, obviously, a losing proposition.2
Smith goes on to say that “if our ‘Western Civilization’ advocates were to be more candid—and more accurate— and offered their course as ‘Western Christendom,’ they would find far fewer supporters.”3
As Page Smith knew even in 1990, the assumptions of contemporary higher academia run counter to the idea of teaching Western Civilization. As such, waning since the late 1960s, required Western Civilization courses have now essentially disappeared.4 Philosophical relativism inspired the attack, demanding the removal of Western Civilization for two primary reasons. The first and most referenced revolves around so-called “Eurocentrism” – the critique that European culture should not be celebrated because all cultures are equal and it is therefore inherently offensive, particularly to people from other cultures, to do so. More subtly, relativism stands opposed because the teaching of Western Civilization inherently supposes a fixed, rather than evolving, nature of man. In other words, the concerns of Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are important today because the fundamental nature of man does not change with time. Even more notably (and more offensive to the relativist) is the assumption that the truths discovered by Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are equally valid today because truth does not change with time.
If one rejects relativistic assumptions, removing Western Civilization from a core curriculum loses philosophical merit. Nevertheless, practical concerns, which may or may not reflect relativistic assumptions, might remain. The argument here, particularly in the United States, is that in the 21st century, the United States has been filled with non-Westerners and thereby a broader cultural milieu should be learned and appreciated. Moreover, the “shrinking” of the world through technology might demand a more multicultural approach. Therefore, the typically proposed course of action is not merely to drop Western Civ but to replace it with something better. That “something better” is almost always World History.
These practical concerns can appear quite convincing and perhaps the most compelling argument for a World History course even stems from a Christian perspective. Considering Smith’s description for instance, the Christian is not interested only in “Western Christianity” but the whole of Christianity – God’s unfolding redemptive plan, not just for Western man, but all of mankind. Furthermore, the teaching of Western Civilization and World History are not mutually exclusive so teaching both may be the best route. However, since time precludes schools from covering all of history, priorities must invariably be set. The argument here is that when in conflict, an American school, and particularly one bearing the names of Christian and classical, ought to grant precedence to Western Civilization over World History.
The flawed nature of teaching “World History” begins the proof of the superiority of Western Civilization. As has already been indicated, World History courses (and, very importantly, the textbooks that support them) are generally designed to endorse relativism at best and undermine Christianity at worst. World History courses almost invariably devolve into a collection of cultural snippets where evaluation is abjured. This fact is interrelated with the other endemic flaws of teaching World History and that is the impossibility of narrative; the subject is simply too abstract and unwieldy. How can one tell the disparate story of the entire world? And, if there is no “story,” there is no “hi-story.” World History by its very nature devolves into a hodgepodge collection of “they did this, these others folks did that, and who cares?” This pedagogical nightmare structurally embodies relativism while snuffing out interest in actual history by burying narrative in a mountain of meaningless happenstances. Henry Ford actually would have been right if he had just said World “history is just one damn thing after another.” Successful history courses need an organizing narrative and World History typically cannot provide one. In fact, that very reason was why Western Civilization courses began at the beginning of the 20th century as educators attempted to reform the failure of World History at both the secondary and undergraduate levels.5 At the end of the 19th century, World History had already proven itself to be pedagogically untenable. How ironic that the academy seems to have forgotten its own history and is now seemingly doomed to repeat past mistakes.
Even if World History was not deeply flawed in its very nature, the strengths of teaching Western Civilization would still demand its predominance. The uniquely valuable nature of history is that it is the one discipline that can unite and encompass all of the others. Just as snippets of past events cannot hold one’s interest without an organizing story, scraps of subjects lose their potency when learned in isolation. A weakness of modern schooling (deserving far more attention and concern) is the breakdown of knowledge into artificial specialties. Students learn math, language arts, science, art, theology, and music in intellectual vacuums rather than seeing the interconnectedness of it all. While it might require an impossible reorganization of schooling to ensure students fully understand the interrelations of these disciplines, within today’s commonly used structures, a strong sense of history is the only hope students have of seeing how art, science, philosophy, and theology all developed alongside one another. Christian classical schools have committed to teaching the theology, art, literature, and science of the Christian and classical world (and this journal is exploring the wisdom of such a commitment). The teaching of Western Civilization is the way for students to see how their subjects interrelate. In other words, not only can Western Civilization be taught narratively, but it provides a narrative into which all the other subjects fit.
Though taboo to say, another crucial reason Western Civilization should have priority is because it is the best civilization. As R.V. Young writes, this fact ought to be self-evident to any disinterested observer whose vision is not warped by ideological astigmatism. Any rational, impartial evaluation will judge the material comfort and prosperity characteristic of the modern era, along with the rule of law and administrative prowess that make them possible, to be unique achievements of Western civilization. Moreover, their emergence in the West are not fortuitous, random phenomena: the sheer physical fact of triumphant modernity is directly attributable to the convergence of Greek thought and Judeo-Christian revelation in the formation of European culture. Imperialism, slavery, oppression, and violence – the sins with which the West has been saddled – are common to all civilizations; the industrial revolution, scientific medicine, the symphony orchestra – these benefits and countless others are exclusive creations of the West. To ignore this manifest reality requires a credence in coincidence verging on superstition.6
Though obviously not perfect, Western Civilization has proven itself the greatest civilization to stride the earth and thereby deserves veneration and study.
Even if Western exceptionalism is rejected, Western power cannot be ignored. On a purely pragmatic analysis, Western Civilization must be studied because it has become the dominant civilization of the world. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has spent over three decades proving the essentialness of “cultural literacy” especially to the disadvantaged.7 The international language of business is English and the culture spreading across the globe is Western. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future, those fluent in the West have advantages over those not conversant in it. It would be yet another painful irony if the children of the West were actually the most illiterate of it.
Perhaps the West’s greatest trait is its willingness to be self-critical. Its harshest critics seem to always miss the paradox that their freedom to criticize the West, while living in and enjoying the West, would generally not be tolerated anywhere else. Nevertheless, to protect Western Civilization, to improve it, to fulfill its promise will require love, and love requires time, thought, understanding, and exploration. Anthony Esolen bluntly describes the contrary designs evinced in a multicultural World History approach. He writes:
The very purpose of what is miscalled multiculturalism is to destroy culture, by teaching students to dismiss their own and to patronize the rest. Hence the antidote to love of this place is not only a hatred of this place, but a phony engagement with any other place. Multiculturalism in this sense is like going a-whoring. Pretending to love every woman you meet, you love none at all. Nor do you genuinely get to know any of them, since it never occurs to you that there are any depths to learn to appreciate.8
A legitimate and necessary role of school is to develop the lover of place. This lover of place, this patriot, is not the one who ignores faults, but is the only one who will do the hard work of improving and defending a place, a culture, a civilization. In contrast, the craven, the ingrate, and the abuser all operate on the fundamental assumption that one place is as good as another.
Twenty-first century American children need to learn to appreciate the unique blessings that they benefit from if their children will have any hope of enjoying them too. If the unique nature of the West is not understood, these blessings will be lost from both erosion within and attack without. The benefits of the West are not automatic, as so many sadly assume. Samuel Huntington explains All civilizations go through similar processes of emergence, rise, and decline. The West differs from other civilizations not in the way it has developed but in the distinctive character of its values and institutions. These include most notably its Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and rule of law, which made it possible for the West to invent modernity, expand throughout the world, and become the envy of other societies…. Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.9
There are few more important lessons for teachers to teach today than Western Civilization. As Niall Ferguson argues, “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation…the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”10 that all Christian classical schools should naturally recognize.11 As Western Civilization courses sadly disappear from almost all course catalogs, it is all the more crucial that Christian classical schools step once again into the breach to provide, not the trendy education, but the needed one.