Karen Siegemund, a math teacher at a private school in southern California, lost her jobin May for defending Western civilization. Although she attempted to avoid triggering delicate sensibilities in class by refraining from wearing any clothing bearing an American flag to school for fear of being labeled “subversively patriotic,” she made the mistake of praising “Western civilization, and how it’s brought the greatest good to the most number of people” at an off-campus event.
What her school “deemed hostile” is simply true: Western civilization laid the intellectual foundation for liberal democracy, the freest, most stable, and most prosperous form of government known in history. It also embodies another virtue, underappreciated today: Western civilization was born from an openness to self-criticism, a virtue that Socrates so brilliantly described more than 24 centuries ago.
In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates famously asserted, “The unexamined life is a life not worth living.” He was encouraging his students to further the Athenian openness to debate, dialogue, and critical assessment of their society’s norms, including Athens’ moral presuppositions and political institutions. Only after taking its great teacher’s life during post-war upheaval did Athens recover its values of intellectual freedom, but Socrates’ timeless defense of living an “examined life” inspired his fellow citizens and others throughout history to carve out space in their societies for thoughtful reflection and debate.
In 1792, American Founding Father Thomas Paine wrote, “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.” America expanded the basic habits of representative government introduced in Athens. Unlike Athens, which restricted voting rights to male citizens, the United States expressed a grander aspiration in its founding documents — that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The path to fulfilling that vision was not easy, but it was Western civilization that put us on our way.
Another thing you can’t say in a classroom today: Christendom, with its Judaic roots, is largely coterminous with the West. Indeed, many of our Founding Fathers believed Christian mores were an important support for their republican experiment. Christianity introduced a radical, democratic idea long before the Enlightenment: the notion that every human being is equal in the eyes of God.
Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, and early civil rights leaders could call upon their religious heritage to argue that slavery and segregation were both un-American and un-Christian. In 1852, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said, “I will … in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America!”
Slaveholders tried to use Scripture to justify slavery, but Douglass believed that Christianity administered justice, morality, and freedom, and he showed Americans how they ignored the basic tenets of their faith by upholding slavery.
Not without struggle against the weakness and moral darkness of mankind, Western civilization gave us an openness to criticize its political system, and guided by the country’s founding principles, the United States found its way to extend voting rights to all of its adult citizens. The extension of voting rights, regardless of occupation, race, or sex, was possible because Americans were willing to criticize their own discriminatory practices.
Western history is full of similar stories. The technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution created an explosion of economic opportunity by unleashing high-powered machinery, factories, and mass production of consumer goods. But the Industrial Revolution also created opportunity for new kinds of injustice, including the brutal exploitation of children.
It took decades, but argument, self-criticism, and activism led to a new national consensus that strengthened worker protections. Wealthy industrialists were ultimately no match for a public committed to improving working conditions, and, properly, that campaign continues.
Unfortunately, Siegemund’s recent travails demonstrate that the critical attitude responsible for provoking the West to live up to its ideals can be used to deconstruct the principles that have long defined and guided the West. Today, very few American colleges and universities require students to study Western civilization as part of their general education programs, but almost every campus offers an array of courses designed to teach students how to impugn and discredit the West’s achievements.
Western civilization stands for, and is defined by, many things, including confidence in the human intellect, respect for the dignity of the individual, and belief in the rule of law. The progress we make as a civilization is the result of an openness to self-criticism — a desire to correct faults, injustice, and even great evils — joined to a confidence that our aspirational principles are right and just.
In a grim, ironic paradox, the radically deconstructive approach to Western civilization in vogue today undercuts the very institutions, traditions, and educational influences that foster human progress and human flourishing.
Nathaniel Urban is the program manager for curricular improvement at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.