Recap of NAS Conference: "What is Western Civilization?"

National Association of Scholars

On February 9-10, 2018, more than 70 National Association of Scholars members, educators, and others gathered in Phoenix, Arizona for our first regional conference of the year, “What Is Western Civilization?” Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix graciously hosted us at Veritas Preparatory Academy.

With the move to purge the study of Western Civilization from all levels of education, we chose this topic as a way to bring together those interested in a serious discussion of the history and ideas that have shaped us—and to bring fresh understanding to this complex question. As NAS President Peter Wood noted in the first address of the day on Saturday, “This conference is not a cheerleading rally for Western Civilization. However, merely putting these ideas on the table to discuss is an act of defiance.”

“What is Western Civilization?” featured Victoria C. G. Coates as the keynote speaker. Dr. Coates currently serves on the United States National Security Council as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Strategic Assessments. She delivered a lecture on “The Art of Western Civilization: Democracy, Christianity, Individuality.” Dr. Coates discussed her book, David's Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, which examines the intersection of the fine arts and free systems of government in the Western tradition. She emphasized the importance of art not only as history, but also as a vehicle for transmitting the values of a free society to each new generation.

Dr. Coates, whose other books include The Last Days of Pompeii and Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum (J. Paul Getty Museum), signed copies of David’s Sling for conference attendees on Saturday night.

Our luncheon keynote was delivered by Stanley Kurtz, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, on “The Lost History of Western Civilization.” Dr. Kurtz reminded the audience that the principles of liberty are woven throughout the fabric of Western Civilization, and that studying this history is how liberty “got in our bones.” He also warned that if the story of the West is forgotten, then liberty will be lost. Dr. Kurtz commented on the rather new “tradition” of playing the Beatles’ song “Imagine” before the New Year’s Eve ball drops in Times Square. The lyrics say, ‘Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.’ He showed that there is an effort by the College Board and others to repress the entire history of “Western Civilization” as a myth, as well as to move into a mindset of “global citizenship,” similar to the mood of “Imagine.” He concluded, “Imagining may be easy; history is hard work.” Dr. Kurtz is the author of Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.

For our plenary address Friday night, Rachel Fulton Brown from the University of Chicago addressed attendees on “Training the Soul in Virtue: Lessons from the West.” Dr. Brown spoke about the role the psalms played during the Medieval period in developing empathy, arguing that empathy is a foundation of Western Civilization. She is the author of From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200 and Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought.

Throughout the day on Saturday we held a four panels that examined different aspects of Western Civilization. The morning panels raised the questions of “When Did Civilization Begin?” and “How Does Western Civilization Contrast with Other Civilizations?” Speakers on the first panel were Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College, Carol McNamara of Arizona State University, and Toby Huff of Harvard University. Professor Huff suggested that in order to discuss the beginning of Western Civilization, we must look for the “distinctive institutional arrangements” that made it unique.

Speakers for the second panel included Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, Karen Taliaferro of Arizona State University, and Robert Edward Gordon of the University of Arizona. After noting that the main difference between the West and Islam is liberalism, Professor Karen Taliaferro ended her lecture by saying that what sets Western Civilization apart from the Middle East are “liberalism, rationality, and equality for better and for worse.” She remarked that the same liberalism that brought such goodness to humanity may contain the seed to its own demise. This was an interesting point to ponder as we see the implosion of much of the traditional liberal arts. Bruce Gilley spoke about the contrast between Western Civilization and sub-Saharan Africa, and Robert Edward Gordon discussed the contrast between the West and East Asian civilizations.

The third panel asked the question “How Should Western Civilization Be Taught?” with Stuart Diamond of The Council of Independent Colleges, NAS director of research David Randall, and Jake Tawney of Great Hearts Academies. In one of the standout lectures of the weekend, Jake Tawney spoke passionately of the critical role mathematics plays in the teaching of Western Civilization: “In a world of relativism, truth is the last stronghold. Students learn things that were true before they were born and will be true after they are dead. Mathematics gives students a sense of objective truth.” NAS’s own David Randall focused on the idea of tolerance as a fundamental value of Western Civilization: “You can’t understand what Western Civilization is without knowing about the history of tolerance.” He also warned the audience about the threats true tolerance faces: “Our country has a clear and present need to relearn what tolerance is and why it is a virtue.”

The second panel of the afternoon explored “Western Civilization’s Relation to Aesthetics and the Fine Arts” with Daniel Asia of University of Arizona and Aaron Mobley of Berkeley City College. Professors Asia and Mobley discussed art and music within the context of Western Civilization and how they have changed as Western Civilization is increasingly pushed aside. Aaron Mobley asked, “How should the arts respond to artistic and cultural debasement?” And Dan Asia noted that “only 150 years ago, art and music had commonly understood definitions. Now there is a general confusion about what makes great music.”

We held small-group “Conversations” on the topics, “To What Degree is Western Civilization the Outcome of Religious Premises?” “What does Western Civilization Owe to the Great Books?” and “What Does Science Owe to Western Civilization?” Participants gathered in for these discussions in the libraries at Veritas Prep.

As always, NAS conferences allow members from across the country to come together to meet one another, engage in lively discussion and debate. Members flew in from as far as New York, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan to attend “What is Western Civilization?”

“What is Western Civilization?” was an enjoyable, deeply interesting conference made possible by Great Hearts Academies, our wonderful speakers, NAS members, and all attendees. We thank everyone who attended and who worked to make this conference memorable. Pictures from the conference are available on the NAS Flickr account. The next National Association of Scholars conference, “Capitol Ideas: Government Overreach and Higher Education,” will be held in Grove City, PA at Grove City College, on August 10-11, 2018. We hope to see you there!


Image Credit: NAS/Jared Platt Photography

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