We Don’t Need “Western Civilization”

Long-time friends of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of David Brooks. I generally try not to engage with his columns – or any column at the New York Times, given their recent climate-denial hire and the problems with even the more liberal columnists (some of them should just be replaced with a generator — oh wait) – but Brooks’ recent thoughts on education and Western values caught my eye.

In his April 21st column, David Brooks expresses worry about “The Crisis of Western Civ.” Much of the article is as expected from a man whose career has been so invested in the idea of quintessentially “Western” values that are at the heart of our way of life. Brooks is adamant that “This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.”

But it is absurd to assume that only a curriculum based around Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution can inculcate the value of reasoned discourse or a public commons. And property rights, as they emerged from Western history, were deeply tide to slavery (Africans as property, and thus having no rights unto themselves) and the genocide of indigenous Americans (because they weren’t using the land “correctly,” it became the property of colonists and they were displaced if not murdered). And if Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine are supposed to teach us good statesmanship, then we’re already beyond all hope, really. But Brooks is convinced that the teleological grand arc of “Western Civ” – which elides the influence of the Islamic world and the Mediterranean world, and isolates a bounded “West” while relegating the rest of the world to the background – is the only way to teach important values to people.

Brooks points to the fact that “decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.” Amazingly, aust a few lines down, he points to the effect of this decline: the rise of not only Trump, but Putin, Erdogan, and other authoritarians, illiberal politicians on the right and the left, and – of course – the tyranny of students protesting hateful speakers on campus. Hopefully I don’t need to tell you that this is quite the leap.

Between my MA and PhD, I spent a year teaching Western Civ to freshmen at a public school in a wealthy, mostly white town. Having pretty much refused a Western Civ framework in my own scholarship and politics, every lesson was a balance of meeting curriculum needs, checking in with existing lesson plans, and finding ways to bring in the rest of the world. The result was not exactly anti-Western Civ, though I sincerely hoped that it would be. But I tried very hard to follow through on teaching Brooks’ fear: that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

Why? Because unlike Brooks, I don’t think there’s much to gain from teaching privileged white Americans that theirs is a lineage traced back to the City on a Hill, and before that the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and Greek democracy. I actually think this does very little compared to a history that centers the value of intercultural exchange – the influence of the Arab world in European mathematics, navigation, and cuisine, for instance, or slavery and slave labor’s central role in creating a European middle class that could imagine having rights and liberty – while highlighting that much of this exchange happened under horrific pretenses (the Crusades, mostly, and then enslavement and colonialism). Teaching students that European empires were vast and covered much of the world implies that capitalism is a net good and is not all that useful if you don’t demonstrate that the wealth of empires came from looting New World gold and enslaving Africans to produce commodities like cotton and sugar for free.

Western Civ is not, for me, a curriculum of democracy and reason and greatness; it is a history of inequality and oppression – and that’s something we can learn from. If you teach people that their history is great, then when they hear criticisms they’ll turn to anyone willing to Make America Great Again. But if you teach them that greatness is subjective, and depends on oppressing others, then maybe they can learn to strive for a more liberated future in which we can share greatness among all – perhaps they can “make” the world something else, more thoughtfully, more equally, more inclusively.

Brooks ties the decline of Western Civ education to a decline in faith in democracy, pointing to a study that shows that “the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.” But maybe people are less confident in democracy because the form of democracy that we have today is deeply flawed. The “democracy” of the U.S. two-party system, for example, is a facade corrupted by money, fear, and hate that is pretty much on track to destroy the climate, enrich the wealthy, and bomb and shoot brown people, no matter whom you elect. Of course youth have lost faith in democracy when it’s got such an awful track record. Young Americans today came of age when the world’s largest anti-war demonstrations couldn’t stop the ill-advised and ill-executed war in Iraq, began voting  when Obama called for hope and change and then turned around and bailed out criminal bankers, abandoning those who had been foreclosed on. And now Trump is our president, and it seems like a few times a week he is trying to prosecute, deport, ban, arrest, defund, or bomb the country and the world into submission. Why would we have faith in the system we’ve seen doesn’t work?

David Brooks is convinced that Western Civilizations as a teleological curriculum is the only way to teach our youth the values that they will need to be good citizens. He’s so convinced that this is the only way, and he’s so convinced that doing away with the Western Civ approach has led us over a cliff into authoritarianism, that he ends his column criticizing the critics of the curriculum. “If you think [Western Civ] was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it,” he opines.

But the diverse nature of a liberal arts education – one which does not need to center on the idea of a Greece-to-Rome-to-Renaissance-to-now progression – can teach values of reason, scientific inquiry, equality, inclusion, rights, etc., and it can do so while teaching the problems and pitfalls of these very ideas. In teaching undergrads the last two years, I’ve often discussed the failures of ideas such as “equality” and the incommensurability of “rights” as well as the ethnocentrism of ideas like “science” and “reason.” This hasn’t made my students any less reasonable or critical or inquisitive. Such education, beyond Western Civ, can train students to think critically, acknowledge the past, be open to new futures, and do so all with the well-being of others in mind. That’s really all we need for what comes after the idea of Western Civilization.

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One thought on “We Don’t Need “Western Civilization”

  1. Lord I hate this kind of smug holier-than-thou pontificating. The fact that slaves were treated as property in no way means that studying property laws (or having them, for that matter) endorses or defends slavery. Maybe if Mr. Ross had studied a little harder he would know better than to make such stupid statements.

    Not to mention that Mr. Ross grossly and wilfully reads meanings into Brooks’ article that aren’t there. At no point did Brooks state or even imply that entire curricula were supposed to be “centered” on western civ or that their content should consist exclusively (or at all) of teaching students to admire “western greatness.” What the paragraph in question does say is that the western tradition, and more specifically the study of it, provided a common vocabulary and framework of reason and progress within which meaningful argument could take place. His point is not that western history is a triumphal narrative of halcyon glory, but a field within which our institutions are designed to enable reasoned and progressive discourse on our problems – which would include the negative aspects of the western legacy, in imperialism and oppression.

    He also has an absurdly constricted notion of what teaching “western civilization” means. Not every western civ class is structured as the glorious progress of divine light of reason from the high citadels of classical Greece. Maybe I’m prejudiced as a medievalist, but I take “western civ” to be a secularized label for what was once unapologetically called “Christendom,” the cultural zone where Latin Christendom was both the dominant religion and the main “glue” mediating between multiple diverse states and cultures. Medieval Christendom, in my view, was a bold but unwieldy synthetic culture that strove to merge various strands of influence from the ancient Middle East, from Greece, from Rome, and from the cultures of northern “barbarian” Europe. It was a potent but unstable mix that never held together terribly well, and whose contradictions ultimately issued in the variety, struggle, and aggression of the modern secularized west. That’s my macronarrative. Slavery, patriarchy and aggression are all a part of it. So are charity, reform, and sacrifice. All important to teach and understand.

    The problem with the “anti-western civ” structure that Mr. Ross advocates is twofold. First of all, it isn’t a zero-sum game. We have become increasingly aware of the value and significance of the achievements of non-western cultures, and that is a good development and worth pursuing. But an increased appreciation of the value of those other cultures does not mandate a devaluation of the west. Secondly, there’s a biting-the-hand-that-feeds you dynamic, in terms of the points of reference. Whence come the ideas that universal freedom, individual worth, or social progress are values to be pursued? Other cultures may also hold these values, in whole or in part, each in their own formulations. But the effectual cultural frameworks that make his own critique possible are the very ones he attacks; it is not because of a Hindi or Chinese value of individual liberty that Scott – or more importantly, the society Scott operates in – came to elevate such values, but because of the predominance of the western framework.

    Of course, the west betrays its ideals more often than it fulfills them. St. Augustine said that great empires amount to brigandage on a massive scale, or Voltaire, that we hang murderers unless they do it in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. What this blog fails to take into account is that precisely the capacity to make such critiques is itself central to the western tradition – indeed, in my view, it is the MOST central and essential part.

    I said above that I view “western civ” as secular-speak for “Christendom.” A central point I make to my students is that Christianity has a rather unique history among world religions. It begins as a religion for the marginal and the outsider, for women and slaves, illegal, a religion for the faithful few striving for heaven and against this world, a persecuted minority. And it remains such for centuries, a formative era for its identity and ideals. Then, abruptly and unexpectedly, an emperor, Constantine, adopts this outsider religion. Now Christian leaders are being invited to court, asked for their advice, and showered with wealth and power. The persecuted minority abruptly becomes a privileged minority, poised to dictate to an entire society from a position of dominance. But the martyrs are not so easily forgotten, and there’s no gradual evolution from one position to the other. So Christianity winds up with a split-personality, uncertain if it’s supposed to be the religion of the martyrs or the religion of emperors, and finding it difficult to be both at once. The result; an ongoing habit, centuries upon centuries, of anxiety over its own corruption, of recurring self-criticism, of constant calls for reform to regain a higher ideal. By the modern era, this habit of criticism and reform secularizes and becomes the habit of the entire culture in all aspects of life.

    All world civilizations are violent. All have their conquerors, their plunderers, their enslavers and oppressors. All have their poets and prophets and philosophers and artists, as well. There is nothing surprising or remarkable that the history of the West is a history of oppression; the history of the entire human race is that. The west happens to have been remarkably good at it for a few centuries in the modern era; other civilizations were better at it in other eras. We have our conquistadors alongside our reformers. The irony here is that when Mr. Ross pats himself on the back for noticing the history of evils in the west and for teaching an “anti-western civ” course, in fact he is engaging in a supremely and uniquely WESTERN course of action.

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