The material covered in Western Civ is not important only for one’s academic foundation, but also for the understanding of culture and one’s place in that culture. Useful insight into the world will come when people understand the world not just as it is, but also as it was.
“Today the distant past is a neglected vital resource,” writes Steven Ozment, a Harvard historian, in the essay, “Why We Study Western Civ,” in the current issue of The Public Interest. In the essay, Ozment outlines the importance of the once-widespread Western Civ survey courses in high school and college curriculums.
As Ozment writes,
The historian’s natural enemy is people who know, and want only to know, their own immediate culture, which they accept as a supreme measure of humankind. It is the civic duty of historians to remind their fellow citizens that they are neither the first nor necessarily the most interesting people to have walked the earth and that nations that lead their lives as if they were often suffered terrible consequences.
Today, it is not easy to disabuse people of these notions, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult. Western Civ is, without a doubt, not politically correct: it is Eurocentric and a peculiarly American invention, having been created shortly after the first World War. It is not attractive to today’s breed of academic: it covers 25 centuries, hardly an en vogue “boutique course reflective of academic specialization.” But, perhaps most important, is that the study of Western Civ is not driven by dogma or special interest. “The great strength of the Western Civ survey within the history curriculum is that it reads history chronologically forward.” Western Civ lacks the thematic or theoretical approach–it doesn’t, for example, look to the past in the context of some modern event.
Ozment writes, “For the wide-eyed and willing, history opens its own alternative paths.” The study exposes students to a variety of views and ideas—it is the antithesis of indoctrination. These days, however, citizens rush “pell-mell to the fiction, self-help, and current events sections of their bookstores and libraries.” And so, while public intellectuals are blogging on the issues surrounding social security reform in an effort to civilize discourse, they remain hopelessly mired in the problem they wish to correct. The better way to civilize politics and culture, Ozment teaches, is to throw out politics altogether and get back to the basics.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.