Epic Battles

Peter Wood

Marathon, Syracuse, Tours, Hastings, Saratoga, Waterloo, Gettysburg: Epic battles have often proved key turning points in history. So what about Shakespeare vs. Seuss? Cleopatra vs. Monroe? These are among the popular (and vulgar, in every sense of the word) satiric videos available in a burgeoning family of historical dust-ups. They are pretty funny, but they also testify to the great chasm that has opened up in popular understanding of our  past. Everything is mashed up with perfect insouciance. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Why not?

A year ago, the National Association of Scholars released The Vanishing West, a report on what happened to the once widespread Western Civilization survey course in the undergraduate curriculum. We traced the fate of the course from 1964 to 2010 in 50 institutions. In 1964 the course in one form or another was found in all the colleges we surveyed and required in 20 percent of them. By 2010, it was offered at fewer than a third of the colleges in the original survey group and required in only one. We also expanded the sample for 2010 to include 75 major public universities. Of those, 40 percent did not offer any version of the course, and only one, the University of South Carolina, had a Western history survey requirement.

The story is complicated in the ways that comparing diverse college curricula always are. We had to track distribution requirements and cluster requirements as well as course requirements, and we looked at programs that assigned core texts as well as those that took a mainly chronological approach. And we looked at requirements for history majors as well as at general-education requirements. The report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and simple: American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of Western civilization.

Here and there a substitute has emerged in the form of a course on World Civilization.  The broader canvas makes good educational sense up to a point. Students in the United States should know something about China and India, and might gain as well from acquaintance with the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations and perhaps what can be pieced together about Great Zimbabwe, the Benin Empire, and so on. One problem, of course, is that as the canvas expands, the richness and detail shrinks. And what a student might have learned about the West (including the ancient near east and Egypt) in a two-semester Western Civilization survey course shrinks to very little indeed.

That, however, isn’t the only problem.

When Western Civilization was a standard college offering (and often a requirement), it provided an organizing rubric for the whole curriculum. Even mathematics and the sciences have a history that is firmly linked with the growth of Western civilization. The Pythagorean Theorem may work the same regardless of a student’s acquaintance with classical Greek philosophy, but the connectedness of knowledge is not the same. When the “West” began to vanish as a central and coherent subject of study, so did students’ understanding of the coherence of the historical, philosophical, intellectual, economic, and artistic connections that together made the complex whole.

As the West receded in the university curriculum, it was replaced less by World Civilization or some other counter-rubric, and more by a dismissal of the importance of rubrics in general. Antifoundationalism of various sorts—postmodernism and the cult of fragmentation—gained precedence. And even as postmodernism has lost cachet, its intellectual legacy is all around us in the form disconnected, micro-focused, and contextless specialization in the contemporary curriculum.

World Civilization is seldom a standard course the way Western Civilization once was. Some colleges offer it; many don’t. And where it is offered, it often treats the West as the target of invidious contrasts with non-Western civilizations. The West portrayed through this lens is uniquely oppressive and destructive. An odd inverse form of Western exceptionalism takes the place of the triumphalist views that were once on offer.

Does any of this matter? After all, American higher education has soldiered on and seemingly prospered for a generation or two without paying much attention to the West, except as an all-purpose target of abuse. It matters for three reasons.

First, it is intellectually impoverishing. Our society and our larger civilization can get along with an ever-growing body of college graduates whose knowledge of history is very thin. Technical specialization and personal ambition will take care of that. But life lived with only a vague sense of its complex past is more superficial than it ought to be.

Second, the attenuation of Western civilization as an organizing concept in the curriculum leaves students unprepared to respond thoughtfully to various ideologies and faddish nonsense. One might think, for example, that we would be over and done with Marxist theory by now, but it survives on campus as a substitute for larger historical frameworks.  One might think the “sustainability” movement would have to answer some hard questions about the success of Western civilization in overcoming the threats of disease, poverty, and mass starvation, and some other hard questions about two centuries of failed Malthusian predictions of imminent disaster.  But not if students lack any coherent overview of the history of Western technological progress. Perhaps a dozen other campus ideologies have grown up that likewise promote mythological versions of the past to justify tendentious claims about the present. Students are vulnerable to such mythologies because they have so little secure knowledge of what actually happened.

Third, the disappearance of Western civilization from the college curriculum is part of a larger demoralization of the West. The generations who have been taught that the relative prosperity of Western societies was achieved mainly by exploitation of humanity and heedless consumption of natural resources, or by geographic good fortune (e.g. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis) have faint reason to see themselves as part of a larger, meaningful, and worthy undertaking.

Combating such impoverishment, vulnerability, and anomie are pretty strong reasons for restoring Western civilization to the curriculum. Along with these three reasons might be the need for colleges and universities to find new ways to attract and hold on to students as the higher-education bubble deflates. The model of trying to be all things to all people with a curriculum of endless options is plainly failing. As online education inevitably swallows the market for students primarily interested in college degrees as a workplace credential, colleges will have to think hard about what alternative they can offer. A coherent curriculum with something more substantial than nods in the direction of “critical thinking” could be the answer.

The diffuse hostility of American higher education toward Western civilization—both the civilization itself and the subject of academic study—leaves a curious cultural gap. Americans are plainly interested in history. The public reads vast quantities of nonfiction works of history and historical novels. We travel large distances to visit historic sites in the near east, Europe, and America. We are riveted by television and movie costume dramas. And even that barometer of the zeitgeist YouTube registers the playful fascination Americans have with the history of the West. The topic may be vanishing from the curriculum, but you can brush up on it in the “Epic Rap Battles of History” I alluded to at the beginning. That is where you can find Shakespeare faces off against Dr. SeussJustin Bieber duels with Beethoven, and Ben Franklin spars with Billy Mays. Yes, it has come to that.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on June 25, 2012.

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