Western Civilization: History Held in Common

For decades, our national history curriculum has suffered a crippling indecision, borne from uncertainty in its mission.

Famed Lincoln biographer David Donald epitomizes this malaise in a New York Times piece from 1977. “‘Lessons’ taught by the American past are today not merely irrelevant but dangerous,” writes a despairing Donald. He speculates that his “most useful function” seems to be “to disenthrall [students] from the spell of history, to help them see the irrelevance of the past,” an attitude the results of which recently inspired Gordon Wood to lament the “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic” character of contemporary historiography.

Such fragmentation erodes the foundation of history as an academic discipline. Most worrying, it eats at the heart of the study of Western civilization, itself a crucial component of the traditional liberal arts curriculum.

“The very term ‘Western civilization’” notes the great American social critic Christopher Lasch in a Harper’s essay from November 1994, “now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed . . . to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression – women, children, homosexuals, people of color – in a permanent state of subjugation.”

Students of the liberal arts no longer share the coherent historical narrative of a civilization held in common. The discipline has balkanized into dozens of narrowly-defined “studies” organized on the basis of race, gender, geographic region, and “identity,” with the past made to function as so many data points in contemporary history’s ongoing analysis of “progress.”

In short, modern historians have lost what Wood calls “interest in the pastness of the past.” In a failed attempt to emulate scientific objectivity, historians have abandoned the task Lasch identifies as central to their craft – assembling a narrative of human morality and values struggling against the backdrop of “the tragic character of history.”

Such language upsets the profession’s new establishment, which equates traditional instruction in Western civilization with the celebration or validation of Western historical figures. But “Western civilization” should not be misunderstood as “European and American studies” – a difficult distinction to grasp for historians of identity. The point is not to “identify” with the subjects of the narrative, but rather to understand the things those who live in the West hold in common today.

At its heart, Western civilization teaches the citizens of the West the story of how the many institutions around which our lives are shaped – our law courts, governments, universities, and common culture – came into being. In a culture suffering from rootlessness, moral and cultural relativism, civic desiccation, and thus moral uncertainty, one is hard-pressed to argue against a narrative promoting “national self-awareness,” a cultural common denominator to which all Americans – all Westerners, in fact – could point to with conviction, certain that this history can be a reference point shared by all within a common culture.

If these issues resonate with the reader, consider registering for the Western Civilization Summit, which the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Tech University Institute for the Study of Western Civilization will present next Tuesday, June 9. Experts will discuss efforts underway to restore Western civilization to its necessary position in the liberal arts, while also celebrating the traditional narrative of Western civilization, unique, in this time of narrow identities and small fortresses, for its desire to tell the story of history held in common by all whose lives are touched by Western culture.