Trustees | Historical Literacy

A Childish Fear of Western Civilization

IMAGINATIVE CONSERVATIVE   |  April 26, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff

In September 1999, my wife and I traveled to Guangdong province in China to complete the adoption of our daughter. We went out shopping accompanied by our official CPC escort, and gazing at our beautiful new child, I asked our guide if she would help me find a suitable Chinese poster for the nursery wall. I suggested a calligraph of a Confucian analect that I had for years admired: two characters that say, “Born good, habits differ.” In older days in China, it was one of the very first things children memorized at school. Although our guide spoke excellent English, she looked quite bewildered, so I explained again what I wanted to find. Then she snapped in annoyance, “Why do you want those old things? We aren’t interested anymore!”

I soon realized that I had come face to face with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which, among its many other horrors, sought to cut a nation off from its intellectual birthright. The public shaming and humiliation of Confucian scholars had been devilishly effective.

I had anticipated a warm response to my desire to introduce my infant daughter to a Chinese philosopher whose name is as well known in the West as the name of Socrates. The Western analogue to what I experienced in that bookstore in Guangzhou might be to be told in London that Shakespeare is old stuff who holds no interest for the contemporary Englishman.

Unfortunately, the abandonment of “old things” followed me back to the states. Several years ago, the University of Pennsylvania English Department voted to remove the iconic portrait of Shakespeare that had for decades hung in the hallway where the English Department has its home.

Students were impatient, however, at the slow progress of the defenestration, and unceremoniously deposited the portrait in the office of the department chairman, replacing it with a picture of the late activist poet Audre Lorde. Department chairman Jed Esty responded, “We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols.”

A study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015, found that only one of the seven Ivy League universities, two of the U.S. News and World Report’s “Top 25” national universities, and two of the “Top 25” liberal arts colleges require their English majors to take a semester course dedicated to Shakespeare’s work.[1] By 2011, none of the 50 top U.S. universities required Western Civilization, and 34 didn’t even offer the course. Nationwide, only 17% of colleges require Western Civ, and only 18% require American history or government. And, most recently, Yale University took its famed “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” off-line, responding, as the school paper reported, to “student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon.’ ”

Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, Abraham Lincoln declared that “if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” In the West, we haven’t needed the Maoists to push us toward cultural suicide.

Seventy-one years ago, French novelist, art theorist, and Minister of Culture Andre Malraux famously noted, “Western civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials.” That doubt has spread like wildfire since Malraux uttered those words. One cannot help but wonder what he would think now, seeing how our campuses treat the study of Western Civilization. We are witnessing a self-wounding nihilism.

It has become an ugly “them and us” on campus. If you believe that studying the forces that shaped modern theories of government, science, and aesthetics should be a priority for us who inherited this legacy, you might even be charged with the reflexive, career-breaking “-ist” labels: racist, classist, sexist. And more.

Witness the gyrations over a rigorous new college entrance exam, an alternative to the SAT and ACT that draws heavily from the Great Books, called the Classic Learning Test (CLT). (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid member of the CLT’s board.) An article on the CLT released by higher education trade journal Inside Higher Ed created a firestorm of online attacks. For example, one reader commented: “I think by emphasizing “Western Cannon [sic]” this white conservative/reactionary crowd is exactly who they are marketing it to.”

W.E.B. Du Bois would take exception to the concept that the Western canon is for the “White conservative/reactionary crowd.” In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Even amidst the grim racism of 1903, Du Bois saw the legacy of Western Civilization as a heritage common to all, rather than a barrier to the progress of African Americans.

So what, pray tell, is there to fear? How well I recall the furious response of the University of Colorado–Boulder provost to my offer as academic vice president of a fully-funded freshman faculty orientation program with readings ranging from Plato to Publius to Fredrick Douglass to Martin Luther King: “I thought you weren’t going to cram Western Civilization down our throats.” Equally tragicomic was the chancellor of another University of Colorado campus who simply scorned the program as “Dead White Males.” (Admirably, then president of the University of Colorado System, Hank Brown, not without opposition, put new funding into the Center for Western Civilization, and it has grown steadily since. Leadership matters!)

On some campuses, the campaign to eliminate Western Civilization seems more like a “canceling” rather than an attempt to add new texts to the discussion. In 2017–18, Reed College overhauled its signature freshman seminar, a storied course focused on the classics, due to student complaints of Eurocentrism. “Reedies Against Racism,” a student group at the college, made the ludicrous demand that the Humanities 110 course jettison all European texts as “reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people.” They have not (so far) gotten all they want, but ancient Greece is now only one of four modules, sharing the stage with three others: Egyptians, Israelites, and Achaemenids; Tenochtitlan; and Harlem.

More than 30 years ago, Jesse Jackson led the Stanford University protests with the cry, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.” It quickly became apparent that the movement against Western Civilization was more ideological than pedagogical: Studying Western Civilization came to represent Western supremacy, colonialism, and racism to its opponents, rather than the academic study of the nations, cultures, and peoples that contributed so heavily to the world we live in.

In Stanley Kurtz’s new book, The Lost History of Western Civilization, we find the sad epilogue to the story of Stanford’s defenestration of its Western Civilization course: “Few junior faculty volunteered to teach Stanford’s multiculturalist substitute for Western Civ. The content of the course remained scattered and incoherent; student interest was low; and the substitute requirement was eventually canceled as a result.”

Thus, the dissolution of Western Civilization has left a vacuum in the curriculum. Western Civ was once used to tie other disciplines together, to supply a forum for discussion of the Big Questions, and to provide students with a sense of purpose. It has debate and controversy hardwired throughout. It is the cradle of the critical thinking that employers value. What system aids human flourishing? Hobbes said monarchy, Locke said consent of the governed, Rousseau pulled toward the state of nature. Western Civilization is the culture of dialectic, not the culture of conformity. By joining that great debate, students become part of an ongoing conversation about matters at the core of human experience.

Returning now to the East, the productive, civilization-building dialogue that the West has contributed to is writ large in storied Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s work. Goethe’s Faust is at the heart of the haunting Ikiru; it is Shakespeare who inspired Ran and Throne of Blood. Kurosawa’s dialogue with Western literature embraces Gorky and Dostoevsky, and in his later film, Dream, a young Japanese man walks into a Van Gogh painting to meet and talk with the artist. In one of the ironies of 20th century political history, it was our Declaration of Independence that influenced not only France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but whose opening words Ho Chin Minh proclaimed in 1945, as he read aloud the Proclamation of the Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Why do college campuses treat the study of how cultural heritage informs the present with such disdain?

Cicero wrote, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.” The good news is that there are bright spots in the higher education landscape. Some colleges and universities—St. John’s, Thomas Aquinas, Columbia, and Hampden-Sydney, among others—have made understanding the Western tradition a signature of undergraduate education. And in the world of K-12, the fact that the Institute for Classical Education has a network of more than 550 elementary and secondary schools representing tens of thousands of parents is witness to a hunger to study, interrogate, and understand our origins. Especially now, in an era of turmoil and dissonance, the opportunity for students to sharpen their sense of wonder, as well as their critical faculties, as they explore the birthright of the place and time in history that we inhabit, deserves, at very least, a place in the course catalog of every college and university worthy of the name.

This is an extended version of an article, titled “Who’s Afraid Of Western Civ?,” that appeared in Forbes on March 11, 2020.


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