In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

A return to the earlier, and more healthy, way of viewing foreign cultures through the lens of Western Civilization is simultaneously the first and final step in a process of the restoration of proper education in Western heritage. It is the first step in that a return to the traditional Western appreciation for diversity will restore a proper view of the West itself. Western Civilization cannot be seen as merely one civilization among many without doing a significant disservice to the history of the world. If Western Civilization can once again be seen as a hugely diverse entity which absorbs what is best in other cultures and transforms what is worst, as the finest, highest, and purest expression of the universal human condition rather than the perspective merely of Europeans, a proper view of the West will have been restored.

The approach of Justin Martyr and the subsequent Church Fathers who drew upon Justin’s ideas provides a model which can be imitated in the modern world. They viewed the ideas of the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans as worthy but incomplete and, through a long process of sorting and amalgamating brought them into the fold of Christendom, and therefore of Western Civilization, in a form modified in accordance with the fundamental standards of Christian belief. Similarly, the practices and ideas of non-Western civilizations can be seen as incomplete and flawed but nonetheless noble descriptions of the human experience. These practices and ideas can then be sorted for their value in the light of the universal truth and applicability of the standard practices and ideas at the core of Western Civilization, and finally completed and taken in. The awareness must remain, however, that these ideas are not being taken in because Western Civilization itself is lacking, but because these ideas are lacking and in need of completion, a completion by which Western Civilization is, in turn, strengthened.

In addition, the return to this proper perspective in Western Civilization of other civilizations must be supplemented with an immersion of primary and secondary students as well as college undergraduates in the foundational texts of Western Civilization. A true “common core” would reflect the full range and development of Western thought including its literary, scientific, and philosophical output. Texts should be selected for study by high school and college students based upon their importance to the history and thought of Western Civilization, rather than misguided hopes of engineering a pseudo-multicultural homogeneity. Through this process, the student will learn an appreciation for his own civilization, which will allow him to authentically appreciate other civilizations. He will also acquire a knowledge of the intellectual and social history of the modern world and, succinctly, the very best that has ever been thought.

The great texts of other civilizations as well as criticisms of Western Civilization from both within and without are best introduced only after this immersion in the texts of Western Civilization has occurred for some time. It is, in fact, only at this point that a student will be able to understand these critiques and appreciate these other civilizations. Reading a criticism without knowing what is being criticized will only produce prejudice. Learning about the thoughts and practices of others without having the firm foundation of one’s own intellectual heritage is a sure recipe for a confused, facile, and more than likely unsympathetic view of others.

The same is true of an appreciation for minority groups within Western Civilizations, such as African-Americans or the Jews of Europe. Their experience has been as much formed and informed by the history and thought of Western Civilization as have those of the majority populations and they, in turn, have had a significant effect on the development of Western Civilization. Once the wider context of Western Civilization is understood, the experience of smaller groups within it can at least be fully appreciated. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one demonstrative example. There, King argues against the tyranny of the majority within the United States, itself one of the great exemplars of the ideals of Western Civilization, using arguments from the history of Western Civilization, such as the early Christian martyrs, and the thought of Western Civilization, such as the concept of natural law. An approach to history which wrenches African-American history out of its Western context renders the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and indeed the entire Civil Rights struggle in the United States, unintelligible. In turn, the experience of African-Americans has done a great deal to shape subsequent developments both in the United States and in Western thought more generally. The student ignorant of these contributions will also experience the world as unintelligible.

For the American student who is not educated in Western Civilization and who does not come to view the world and himself through the lens of this civilization, the entire world, in fact, is unintelligible. “Know thyself” was one of the most profound mottos of ancient Greece. To “know thyself” one must first know the forces, social, political, and ideological, which have been one’s shaping forces. One should, in addition, be exposed to those ideas which best describe the nature and situation of man in any social, political, or ideological context. With an understanding of self comes an understanding of the world. A thorough grounding in the history and thought of Western Civilization, far from inculcating notions of innate European superiority or any such nonsense, will allow young people to see the world from the standpoint of a thorough understanding and an appreciation for authentic diversity.

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest
All that I have written thus far in this series of posts is not to say that Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the native religious and philosophical traditions of China and India are not valuable, nor that any other aspect of their indigenous traditions are not worthy of study. On the contrary, each of the cultures of the world contains and is a commentary upon some unique aspect of the common human experience. What has led to the success of the West over these other cultures, and what separates it from them as uniquely important, is that Western Civilization never took on the parochial nature of, for example, Indian or Chinese thought. Because it has been since its conception the product of a confluence of diverse ideas and cultures and has remained throughout its history uniquely open to outside influences, Western Civilization reflects not merely one aspect of the common human experience but the purest expression of the universal human condition. Rather than a closed, merely European phenomena, the genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in a blustering attack on Christian heretics, “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”, he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Western Civilization demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians, who have been the primary shapers of Western Civilization through the course of most of its history, generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

In short, while the applicability of the great bulk of Confucius’s ideas remains isolated from the experience of most people in the world and these ideas are antiquated even in modern China, the ideas of Confucius’s Greek contemporaries Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle remain as vital and significant as they were when first formulated nearly 2400 years ago. Importantly, the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle possess equal vitality and significance not only in modern Greece but also in modern China. It is the West’s primeval embrace of diversity and its outward-looking philosophy, perhaps most encapsulated in the Christian idea of the Incarnation of Christ, that have made this possible. This is one of the great ironies which inheres in the thought of those who wish to undermine education in Western Civilization in favor of a multicultural approach. Their very openness to foreign ideas is one of the fundamental components and ultimate strengths of Western Civilization itself. They have, however, confused this strength for a weakness and made it into a point of attack by turning it on its head.

 

Notes
1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

 

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

 

The inevitable ramifications of the propagation of a combined ignorance of and hostility toward Western Civilization among the inheritors of that civilization are disastrous. A person who is so entirely out of touch with the sources of his own ideas and the various institutions around him is a person who is alienated from self and from society. He is unable to understand either of them. More than that, the individual who is ignorant of and hostile to his own culture cannot help but be ignorant of and hostile to other cultures. He cannot understand them on their own terms nor appreciate them for their own merits. His alienation has fostered within him a radical individualism which allows him to see himself, contrary to objective reality, as an isolated cell rather than a part of a larger whole: a community, a society, a nation, a culture, a civilization, or even mankind itself. He only accepts, and in fact he only understands, that with which he agrees. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons the architects of the Common Core have chosen so many modern texts which represent the experience of immigrants to the United States or, more often, second-generation Americans, who write with a hostility toward their newly adopted nation and its traditions while there is a dearth of material listed in their recommendations which can be said to be authentically representative of the native literary and intellectual traditions of the civilizations from which these immigrants have come.

The obsessive focus on “global perspectives,” in the terminology of the Michigan Department of Education, ignores a key aspect of the contemporary global situation, namely, the worldwide predominance of ideas and institutions whose origins are deeply rooted in the history of Western Civilization. China, a rising world power and the most populous nation on earth, provides an outstanding example. The current official name of China is the People’s Republic of China, a nomenclature which reflects the reality of their adoption of Western political and economic ideas. Their political and economic system is a mixture of the free market ideas which originated in early modern Britain; the ideas of Karl Marx, a German-born Jewish immigrant to Britain; and the democratic and republican political ideals of the Greeks and Romans. The native tradition of Confucianism, which dominated political, economic, and social thought in China for millennia plays no role outside of certain lasting and largely unconscious vestiges in custom and perspective. In the popular uprisings which overturned traditional Chinese government and culture in the first half of the twentieth century, the Chinese largely discarded and destroyed their own Confucian cultural heritage, intentionally reforming their nation along a Western model.

The same is true in large part in India, another rising world power and the second most populous nation in the world. One of the great historical ironies of the twentieth century is the overwhelming inspiration ideas with Western origins provided to the nationalists and anti-colonialists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in India, where the leaders of the nationalist movement were almost to a man educated in Western schools, or in Western-style schools in India. The most famous leader of the independence movement in India, Mohandas Gandhi, for example, received his primary and secondary education in schools administered by the British government. All but one year of his post-secondary education was completed at University College London.

In his 1959 The Movement of World Revolution, Christopher Dawson provides an illuminating statement by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, one of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, to this effect:

In the first place [says Panikkar] the system of higher education in English provided India with a class imbued with social purposes foreign to Hindu thought. The continuity and persistence of those purposes achieved the socio-religious revolution on which the life of modern India is based. While British administration did little or nothing to emancipate the spirit, to extinguish the prejudices, to eradicate the ravages of ignorant custom and pernicious superstition, the New Learning which came to India through its introduction to the English language on a nation-wide scale undoubtedly did all this. Indeed it may be argued that the essential contradiction of the British rule in India lay in this: the constituted government upheld the validity of customs, maintained and administered laws which denied the principles of social justice, refused to legislate for changes urgently called for by society, watched with suspicion the movement of liberal ideas, while the officially sponsored and subsidized educational system was undermining everything that the Government sought to uphold. … In the educational system the Government created and maintained an opposition to itself in a place where its own methods were ineffectual.

The mining of the ancient fortress of Hindu custom was a major achievement, for the reason that it was uniformly spread all over India. Had the new education been through the vernacular languages, the emphasis of the movement would have been different from province to province. … There would have been no “master plan” of change, and instead of the Hindu community being unified, it would have split into as many units as there are languages in India. … From this development India was saved by the common medium of education which Macauly introduced into India.

In the second place it is a point of major significance in the evolution of India as a single nation that this uniform system of education throughout India through a single language produced a like-mindedness on which it was possible to build. That it gave India a common language for political thinking and action is of less importance than the creation of this like-mindedness, this community of thought, feeling and ideas which created the Indian nationality.1

It was the exposure to Western thought through the medium of the English language, in other words, which made the Indian nationalist movement possible. The Western focus on social responsibility and political action, with origins in Greece and in Judaism, inspired the Indian nationalists. The unity of thought and expression brought about by the common language, both in words and ideas, in which they were educated made their unified movement possible. Today, India is rightly proud of its great past, displaying, for example, the symbol of the Emperor Asoka, the ancient king who unified India almost 2300 years ago, on their national flag. They are also a nation with a government and a burgeoning economy centered in sciences and technologies which all originate in the history and thought of Western Civilization.

 

Notes

1 Sardar P.K. Panikkar, quoted in Christopher Dawson, The Movement of World Revolution (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959), 124-126.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 1: Western Civilization and Higher Education

The Michigan Department of Education is not alone among state departments of education in its adoption of these multicultural requirements. Standards in most states have reflected these trends for the past several decades and continued to move evermore in the direction of a multiculturalism which sees the uniqueness of Western Civilization as its primary enemy. The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by all but a few states serve as a representative example of the widespread movement away from an education in Western Civilization at the primary and secondary levels. Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects provides a set of “text exemplars” which are intended to demonstrate the sort of literature a student is expected to read at each grade level.1

Confining analysis of this document to only those sections which designate works to be read in high school (grades 9-12), for the sake of brevity, provides an ample demonstration of the denigration of Western Civilization current in American education. While some of the great works of Western Civilization are included, such as Homer’s Odyssey (though, inexplicably, not the Iliad),2 William Shakespeare’s Macbeth,3 Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,4 and the Declaration of Independence,5 there are many others which are conspicuously absent.6 Mark Twain, for example, arguably the greatest of American authors, and certainly one of the most important, is entirely absent from the recommended reading for high school. He and others like him have been replaced by some rather perplexing selections.

Included among the “text exemplars” for high school freshmen and sophomores, for example, is Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club, which focuses on a group of women who are immigrants, or the daughters of immigrants, from China living in San Francisco.7 While Tan’s book may be a very good novel, it would be a stretch of the imagination to class it for either quality or importance in a list alongside the works of Homer, Ovid, Kafka, and Steinbeck. It would be a stretch of the imagination to the breaking point to consider Tan’s work part of a “common core” of knowledge which all graduates from high schools in the United States should be expected to possess. Yet this is precisely what the designers of the Common Core State Standards have done. Short of a desperate multiculturalism which grasps for representatives from every minority available in order to concoct a facade of inclusivism, there is no sound explanation for the inclusion of The Joy Luck Club in the Common Core State Standards. If the authors of the Common Core felt that selections representative of Chinese culture must be included, why not include selections from The Analects of Confucius or Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, classics of the Chinese literary and philosophical canon? Neither are anywhere to be found in the “text exemplars.” The closest the Common Core comes to these classics of Chinese civilization is the inclusion of a short poem by the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po.8

The choice of a story about Chinese immigrants to the United States over authentic representations of indigenous Chinese cultures becomes evident when other works on the list are examined. Several of the more recent works recommended in the Common Core are about the experiences of recent immigrants to the United States from non-Western nations, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake,9 a novel about immigrants to the United States from India; Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,”10 an essay about her mother’s difficulties in speaking Standard American English; and Rudolfo Anaya’s “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,”11 an essay in which he decries the fact that American poetry is American rather than Mexican. The message of these and the other “text exemplars” like them is clear when viewed as a set: the United States must adjust to the influx of immigrants from non-Western civilizations rather than expecting the immigrants to adjust to their newly-adopted homeland. Placing these texts alongside the foundational texts of Western Civilization and of the United States creates an effect which makes all them appear equally valid and important in the mind of a teenager being exposed to all of them for the first time simultaneously.

Among the most disconcerting of the selections of this sort are those that also intend to exhibit to the student a wildly different set of values and virtues from the traditional ethics of Western Civilization, or of any of the world’s great civilizations for that matter. Cristina Garcia’s 1992 novel Dreaming in Cuban is one such book. 12 The novel, which focuses on immigrants to the United States from Cuba, contains a number of scenes of debauchery and is, in parts, nearly pornographic.13 This is the sort of thing the architects of the Common Core have placed on a list of recommended reading for high schoolers alongside Chaucer, de Cervantes, Austen, Poe, and Hemingway.

Even when a student is introduced to fundamental texts of the Western and American traditions, the exposure is one that is formulated to encourage the student to greet the text with suspicion and derision. There is, for example, no indication given that a high school student will read the Constitution of the United States in its entirety at any point in his education. Instead, the student will read only the Bill of Rights and two highly critical, and factually dubious, commentaries.14 The representative text offered by the Common Core authors from one of these commentaries, written by Akhil Reed Amar, focuses on this nearly slanderous claim of more than questionable facticity:

These two small problems [referring to aspects of the apportionment clause], centering on the seemingly innocent words “among” and “Persons” quickly spiral out into the most vicious words of the apportionment clause: “adding three fifths of all other persons.” Other persons here meant other than free persons—that is, slaves. Thus, the more slaves a given state’s master class bred or bought, the more seats the state could claim in Congress, for every decade in perpetuity.

The Philadelphia draftsmen camouflaged this ugly point as best they could, euphemistically avoiding the S-word and simultaneously introducing the T-word—taxes—into the equation.15

Far from being treated to an explication of the genius of the Founding Fathers in their creation of a new nation and its government by their education in and meditation upon the greatest political thought in the history of the world (that is, the political thought of the Western tradition), students are instead introduced to the Constitution via the loaded term “master class” and a derogatory reference to the Founding Fathers as “the Philadelphia draftsmen” in the course of a misleading discussion of the three-fifths compromise. Admittedly, a discussion of the justness of the three-fifths compromise might be the makings of a worthwhile exercise in critical thinking for the students. A balanced and honest account, however, would also inform the students that every civilization in the history of mankind has practiced slavery. It would also relate to them that the only civilization to abolish slavery on its own impetus was Western Civilization. Every other civilization which still exists in the modern world has abolished slavery under pressure from the West. Amar, of course, fails to mention this.

The other commentary on the Constitution to which American high school students are to be subjected under the Common Core is no better. This commentary, by Linda R. Monk, goes further than Amar’s; not only were the Founding Fathers consumed by their racism, as Amar informs us, they were also misogynists:

But who are “We the People”? This question troubled the nation for centuries. As Lucy Stone, one of America’s first advocates for women’s rights, asked in 1853, “We the People”? Which ‘We the People’? The women were not included.” Neither were white males who did not own property, American Indians, or African Americans—slave or free.16

Ironically, in this statement, Monk has sided with the Supreme Court justices who decided that Dred Scott was his master’s property over the interpretation of Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, the high school students being indoctrinated with this anti-American polemic will not be educated well enough to understand the irony. At the same time the student is being introduced to Western Civilization and to his American heritage, he is being inculcated with dishonest criticisms of them and inundated by views of their supposed “limitation,” to use the Michigan Department of Education’s word. He is unwittingly being used to further perpetuate their ongoing dissolution.

 

Notes

1 Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks, http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf.

2 Ibid., 101.

3 Ibid., 111.

4 Ibid., 140.

5 Ibid., 164.

6 It worth noting, in addition, that, if the textbooks which have thus far have been printed in accordance with the Common Core State Standards are any indicator, almost none of these works will be read in full. In his book The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core, for example, Terrence O. Moore, a former professor at Hillsdale College and principal of Atlanta Classical Academy, examines the contents of several of these textbooks. One example provided is a textbook of British literature which features 17 pages on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only three and a half of which actually feature text from the novel itself. The indication is that students will be reading very short selections from these texts, rather than conducting any in-depth study of particularly important works. See Terrence O. Moore, The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core (2013), 174-180.

7 Common Core State Standards, Appendix B, 108.

8 Ibid., 157.

9 Ibid., 152.

10 Ibid., 170.

11 Ibid., 171.

12 Ibid., 152.

13 Many of the greatest works of Western Civilization, books which a student should undoubtedly read, contain scenes of sexual and other forms of immorality. Dreaming in Cuban is not objectionable, then, merely on the grounds that it contains gratuitous descriptions of acts of sexual immorality. The rule of thumb for differentiating the acceptably obscene from the distastefully pornographic is the purpose of the scene itself. If the sex acts depicted are intended to make some larger, more important point, or to stand as a symbol with deeper meaning, they can be accepted as an integral aspect of the story. If the sex acts depicted, however, are depicted merely to titillate the reader or are depicted in a way that far surpasses need the depiction is almost certainly pornographic.

14 Common Core State Standards, Appendix B, 166-167.

15 Ibid., 176.

16 Ibid., 95.

 

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 1: Western Civilization and Higher Education

“One of the chief defects of modern education has been its failure to find an adequate method for the study of our own civilization.”1 So wrote Christopher Dawson in 1961, almost precisely at the inception of the trends in thought about education and culture which would not only further exacerbate this pre-existing problem but, in an attempt to pretend that the problem did not exist at all, would ignore it altogether, thus allowing a minor illness to ripen into a full-blown plague. While Dawson sought to reform the way in which the study of Western Civilization was approached in schools, he could still, in 1961, take it for granted that all primary and secondary school students in the United States would be inducted into the history, thought, and culture of Western Civilization. He could still, at that time, assume that all American college undergraduates would be required to take at least a course in Western Civilization and would be exposed through other classes to the great literary, artistic, philosophical, scientific, and other products of that culture, which is, in fact, their culture. In the same paragraph, Dawson laments the dominance in educational institutions of the twin forces of “the democratic utilitarianism of compulsory state education, on the one hand, and … scientific specialization, on the other.”2 These two forces have continued to dominate American education in the more than half a century since Dawson wrote his Crisis of Western Education. The result has been that the crisis has reached such proportions that each new graduating class of students is further restricted within a field of technical specialization and further alienated from their heritage as the children of Western Civilization and citizens of the United States.

In colleges throughout the United States, courses in Western Civilization, once required for majors in all areas of study, have not only ceased to exist as a requirement but have ceased to exist altogether. In a study published in May 2011, the National Association of Scholars documented the decline of Western Civilization courses in American colleges beginning in 1964.3 They found that throughout both public and private institutions of higher learning across the United States, including top-ranked universities, a survey course in Western Civilization has all but gone extinct as a requirement for undergraduates. Very few even require such a course for students majoring in history. Instead, the trend has been to replace the study of Western Civilization with a class dedicated to a more general study of world history, downplaying the importance of Western Civilization and downgrading it to the status of just one civilization among many.

When universities do choose to teach their students about Western Civilization, it generally comes packaged with vitriolic criticism. While Harvard University offers no introductory course in Western Civilization to its undergraduates, for example, it does offer a graduate course targeted to its teaching fellows whose title is “Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy.” The description of the course from Harvard’s course catalogue states its purpose without equivocation:

The purpose of this graduate seminar is to get Teaching Fellows and other graduates to engage with the historiographical and pedagogical challenges of the General Education course, Societies of the World 19: Western Ascendancy. Courses in Western Civilization are nowadays widely seen as outmoded and excessively Eurocentric. The aim of SW 19 is to address questions of global economic and political divergence in a fresh way, taking advantage of more recent literature on economic history, for example.4

The trend in favor of the degradation of Western Civilization has penetrated academia so deeply that those institutions which have resisted the trend have become the targets of governmental organizations dedicated to enforcing educational homogeneity. Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan, for example, has documented his institution’s struggle against government agencies tasked with the imposition of conformity to current trends his book Liberty and Learning. One example he provides concerns the Michigan Department of Education’s criticism of Hillsdale’s stated mission to act as “a trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual heritage from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”5 The Michigan Department of Education insisted, with the threat that it would refuse to issue teaching certifications to graduates of Hillsdale, that Hillsdale College reform its introductory courses in Western Civilization, which Hillsdale requires for all undergraduates in any major, so that the “intent is to point out the limitation to Western culture.”6 The Department asserted, in addition, that “the Hillsdale program, based on the principles of Western culture, does not incorporate global perspectives by design. It is unclear how to resolve this weakness.”7 In other words, Hillsdale College’s focus “on the principles of Western culture” is, in the eyes of the state of Michigan, a “weakness” that must be “resolve[d]” in order to incorporate a more multicultural approach, to the detriment of both Western Civilization as a course of study and to the detriment of the students who are receiving this education.

 

Notes

1 Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 119.

2 Ibid.

3 Glenn Ricketts, Peter W. Wood, Stephen H. Balch, and Ashely Thorne, “The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum,” National Association of Scholars (May 2011) http://www.nas.org/articles/The_Vanishing_West_1964-2010.

4 “History 2921 – Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy: Seminar,” Harvard University Course Catalogue: 2013-2014.

5 Larry P. Arnn, Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education (Hillsdale: Hillsdale College Press, 2010), 53.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

Defining Western Civilization: Christendom By Any Other Name

There can be little doubt that Western Civilization is and will for the foreseeable future remain the dominant civilization of the world. The nations of Western Civilization have, over the past several centuries, spread their languages, their cultures, their ideologies, and their political rule to every continent. Despite the decline of Europe, the home of this civilization for the bulk of its lifespan thus far, the ideas of the West continue to be the major shaping influences of the modern world, though the focal points of that world have since moved to North America and are now moving to Asia. Ideas such as communism, democracy, and human rights are finding new homes in India, China, and Japan, far from their birthplaces in Germany, Greece, and Italy. While this renders the term “Western Civilization,” with its directional emphasis, a quaint anachronism, the ideas themselves have taken on a renewed vigor in their current host nations. The first step toward understanding the reasons for the dominance of Western Civilization and for responding to its movement into new and foreign terrain is defining Western Civilization itself.

To define Western Civilization, the term itself must, in a sense, be dismissed. It is clearly not merely “Western,” meaning European, but rather universal in its embrace and pertinence. The “Western” idea of liberty is equally true and meaningful in both France and China. A close look at the history of Western Civilization even before its globalization in the modern era reveals that it has never been strictly “Western.” Its most ancient ancestors, in fact, lie altogether outside of the borders of Europe. The genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in his blustering attack on Christian heretics “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Christians demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

From the foregoing, a definition of Western Civilization can be formulated which removes the misguided focus on geography and favors instead a more complete understanding of the history and nature of the civilization itself. Western Civilization is not strictly European or entirely Western. It is, rather, that collection of disparate cultures which has united itself around the fundamental notion of the Incarnation. Western Civilization is, in short, Christendom.

The immediate objection to such a formulation is the observation that Western Civilization has, beginning with the Enlightenment, entered a period of turning away from its Christian heritage which has resulted in the modern so-called post-Christian societies of Europe and the emergent post-Christian societies of North America. With such a turn to secularism in the former domains of Christendom and with such nations as India and China, which are not now and never have been majority Christian nations, taking on and internalizing ideas which originated in the West, some may see the designation of Western Civilization as Christendom as unnecessary and antiquated. To adopt such a position, however, is to ignore or to be ignorant of the overwhelming influence Christianity has had upon the formation of this civilization. As Dawson points out,

In fact, no civilization, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last nine hundred years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilization is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world.11

Although Christianity may be in the process of becoming a minority religion even within the historical borders of Christendom and although the ideas of Christendom are now put into practice with more vigor and among nations with far larger populations in lands yet unbaptized, the force of Christianity in the shaping of Western Civilization cannot be ignored or downplayed. Even the very ideas which are replacing traditional Christian religiosity among those living within Christendom’s native lands are the product, or perhaps the byproduct, of Christianity. Scientific materialism, for example, would hardly be a tenable worldview without the process of the development of scientific thought in the West, a process which largely occurred not only at the hands and in the minds of believing Christians but also, and more importantly, as a result of the impact of Christian ideas. The Christian scholastics of the Middle Ages, for example, in their attempts to reconcile the contents of the Christian faith with the philosophy of Aristotle, “laid a solid foundation of logical thought on which later science could build.”12 The early giant of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo Galilei, was himself inspired and driven by his belief that “this grand book, the universe, … is written in the language of mathematics.”13 This Platonic notion refracted through the lens of his medieval Christian heritage drove Galileo to attempt to formulate mathematical proofs for Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. There are, in addition, more subtle ways in which Christianity made modern science and its sickly cousin, philosophical naturalism, possible; for example, the idea of monotheism renders the cosmos intelligible as natural forces are freed from the provenance of various competing deities and instead placed under the providence of a single divine entity, thereby imbuing the universe with an orderliness and meaningfulness it could not formerly possess.

Whatever Western Civilization may become in the future, it remains the product of Christianity and is as yet inseparable from that foundation. That many of its members are turning away from that foundation and that other civilizations are attempting to adopt its ideas in a piecemeal manner without also adopting that foundation is a challenge Western Civilization is only now beginning to face for the first time. How radically Western Civilization will be altered, whether its products can survive outside of their natural habitat and without the food sources they have hitherto depended upon, and, indeed, whether Western Civilization can survive these upheavals at all are yet to be seen. Until that time, Western Civilization remains what it has been since its inception two thousand years ago in the incipient stage of that great synthesis of Judaism and Greece; it is Christendom.

Notes

1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

11 Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 23.

12 Stromberg, 32.

13 Galileo, The Assayer.