Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearEducation on January 27, 2020, and is republished with permission.
The prevailing opinion in our universities is that “Western Civilization” was essentially a wartime propaganda effort, invented during World War I. Stanley Kurtz’s excellent new report, The Lost History of Western Civilization, proves this notion is nonsense on stilts.
The credentialed radicals who run higher education wanted to erase America’s memory of its past. So they set out to delegitimize the standard Western Civilization survey course that was offered at many of our nation’s colleges at the time. Their effort was based on tendentious research by scholars such as Gilbert Allardyce and Lawrence Levine, who argued that before World War I Americans thought the United States was exceptional and distinct from Europe and never studied Europe and America as a civilizational unity. Allardyce and Levine argued that the Western Civ course was invented during World War I as a form of war propaganda, manufacturing a cultural connection, so our gallant doughboys would willingly sail to France to fight the Boche.
Therefore — and the therefore was always the point — who cares if you get rid of the Western Civilization course? "Hey, hey, ho, ho," Jesse Jackson and his cadre of activists chanted in 1987, "Western Culture’s got to go!" And why not? Hadn’t it been created in living memory? A professor of 70 was older than the Western Civ course! Why shouldn’t the universities dispense with it?
So Western Civ did go. Stanford got rid of the course in 1988. In 1964 the Western Civ course had been required in virtually every American university, but the requirement had almost vanished by 2010. Some universities kept the course for students to take voluntarily — but increasing numbers replaced it entirely with a World Civilization course. Three times as many students take the College Board’s World History Advanced Placement examination as take European History. Our students never have the chance to learn about the sequence linking Athens and Jerusalem to America, the continuous history from Plato to NATO.
Of course, Western Civilization exists. It’s not just that we read the Bible and Homer, that Rome bequeathed us its republican government and its law, that our jury system is Anglo-Saxon, our common law medieval, and our greatest playwright one William Shakespeare. It’s that every generation from Rome to the present has continuously added to the same culture — the copyist monks in the ruins of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance gentlemen who transformed the rediscovered classics into a new humanism, the Bacons and Galileos and Harveys who built a new scientific method and body of knowledge upon Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy. In America, our Founding Fathers built a new republic upon foundations two thousand years deep.
All that’s true of course, but Kurtz also provides chapter and verse to prove that American colleges taught a version of the Western Civ course long before World War One. Christendom, Europe, Western Civilization — whatever the name, the idea of a historically coherent European civilization was present at least from the Enlightenment writings of Scots historian William Robertson, and eighteenth-century American college students read their Robertson. The sophisticated nineteenth-century histories of François Guizot and his peers served as textbooks for Western Civilization’s long narrative — textbooks that swiftly formed the backbone of the American college curriculum. The Western Civ course of the 1920s owes more to Harvard’s History I of the 1890s than to Columbia’s War and Peace Issues of 1919.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans surely thought they were exceptional — and with good reason. But they took America to be exceptional as the culminating perfection of the European tradition, not as its antithesis. George Berkeley, bishop and philosopher, phrased the notion neatly as early as 1726: "Westward the course of empire takes its way; The four first Acts already past, A fifth shall close the Drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last."
The destruction of the Western Civ course was not trivial. It was the erasure of a body of knowledge that constituted the American identity. To remove Western Civ was a body-blow against America’s civilizational memory — brain damage deliberately inflicted. It would be easier to subject America to revolutionary transformation if Americans forgot who they were.
Consider the Pledge of Allegiance: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. You need the Western Civ course to understand the three-thousand-year history of the words allegiance, republic, nation, God, liberty, and justice. You need the Western Civ course to understand why we pledge ourselves to them, and what we lose when they are taken away from us. The Pledge means nothing if we forget our history.
Alas, the academic radicals have proved all too successful. The nation’s brain damage has increased for generations. Ever fewer Americans remember the sacred and humane letters that formed our moral consciousness, that provided the ethical arguments for liberty, that told why and how we must preserve free institutions. This brain damage makes it possible for Americans to be molded by woke tyranny’s euphemisms of social justice, multiculturalism, and global citizenship.
Higher education’s radical establishment won’t care about Kurtz’s report. They’ve already moved on to new rationales to explain why the Western Civ course must be destroyed. The Western Civ course can only be reinstated by the tenacious efforts of alumni and taxpayers, citizens and state legislators — the Americans who foot the bill for higher education. They, at least, can read The Lost History of Western Civilization and learn that we must reinstate the Western Civ course, and now. It isn’t just a matter of academic politics, but of the survival of our exceptional Republic. America lobotomized will die.
We know practical ways to restore America’s memory. States such as California and Texas already require public universities to teach courses in American history and civics; new laws should add requirements to teach Western Civ courses. State legislatures should also dedicate money to autonomous schools dedicated to passing on knowledge of Western Civilization, such as Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. States such as Arizona and Wyoming require teachers to acquire minimum knowledge about the federal and state Constitutions; teaching licensure requirements should be reformed to include a Western Civ course. Parents everywhere should send their children to colleges with required Western Civ courses — or, at the very least, with Western Civ courses instead of World Civ.
The history of Western Civilization indeed has been lost. But it can be found. Stanley Kurtz has told us what we possessed, and what we must strive to possess again.
Image: Public Domain