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.