Nearly 30 years ago Jesse Jackson linked arms with protestors on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, California, chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go.” At that time, most colleges still had a Western Civilization requirement. Today, very few do.
Western Civilization courses typically cover the Roman and Greek worlds, the emergence of Christianity, and the development of European thought, science and economic development, the Renaissance, the age of exploration and the Enlightenment, and modernity. The course is often taught in two semesters, divided at the end of the medieval era.
Critics like Jesse Jackson have long argued that Western Civilization requirements are Eurocentric and at least implicitly racist. Defenders have responded that to understand America and the developed world requires understanding the political, cultural and scientific roots of the West and to lose an understanding of that narrative will, in the long run, undermine our democracy.
A 2010 study by the National Association of Scholars studied 50 top American Universities. In 1964, 20 percent of them required Wester Civ, while all of the remainder included it as an option in a general education distribution requirement. By 2010, none required Western Civ, and only 32 percent included it within a distribution option.
One residue of the once-pervasive Western Civilization course is the College Board’s AP European History course, which allows high school students to fill college electives. That course was revised in last year, shifting to a focus that some critics argue pushes it further away from its historic purpose as an exploration of Western Civilization.
Last month, the National Association of Scholars, a conservative organization of over 2,000 professors, issued a report challenging the new European History course. The NAS drew national attention last year when it successfully pressured the College Board to revise its new American History AP course for similar reasons.
Peter Wood, an anthropologist who taught at Boston University for 25 years, is president of NAS. The Deseret News spoke with him about Western Civilization, the idea of history and a few of his concerns about the new European History AP framework. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: What, in your mind, is at stake if high school seniors and college freshmen don't learn the history of Western Civilization?
Peter Wood: They will have no idea why ISIS is trying to kill us. They will have no idea what sets America apart from European nations, if they don't know what Europe is. They won't know the roots of liberty and self-government in the American experiment. To understand where we are in the modern world is to understand the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states, free market economies and the middle class, and the abolition of slavery. All of these didn't just happen. They happened as part of a complex history that needs to be learned. Our world has been shaped by that history, not just in Europe, but also on this side of the Atlantic — and due to colonialism and globalism, the whole world. There is not an occupied piece of real estate in the world that has not been affected by the last five centuries of European History.
DN: Is this debate of how to teach European History really a reboot over the debate over whether Western Civilization at all?
PW: I don’t think we’re debating it much any more. As we showed in our “Vanishing West” report in 2010, Western Civilization requirements were already gone. We marched through a pretty hefty sample of colleges, looking at the disappearance of Western Civilization survey requirements from 1964 to 2010. The only people still debating it are those of us who want to bring it back. Students at Stanford recently managed to get a ballot initiative going to restore a Western Civilization requirement. It lost, of course, by a huge percentage.
DN: We spoke with a prominent European historian on this question, who was involved in the last round of AP European History. When asked why we even have an AP European History but not AP Asian History or AP African History, his answer was that European History is a residual from when Western Civilization was in the core college curriculum. He couldn’t really offer a compelling reason to keep it.
PW: But history is a Western concept. The reason we haven’t studied sub-Saharan African history, until recently, is that they didn’t have any (written) history. In Asia, the Chinese emperors kept records of events, but they did not conceive of China developing as an historical entity. The Confucian tradition was aimed at a kind of profound stasis, ending perturbations when they occurred and restoring the center. The whole concept of Western Civilization, in contrast, is that it is in the midst of creation at every moment. That is a predicate to there being a history. We study European history because it has a history, and because that history is central to the civilization itself.
DN: When you talk of creation at every moment, you are addressing the openness to discovery that the West seems to have always had. I’m thinking of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Here you have a Latino American weaving in hip hop elements into a story of an penniless bastard who rose from nothing to become a leading founder of America. Isn’t this kind of synthesis quintessentially Western?
PW: Yes, and I would add that the hip hop is central to “Hamilton,” but that is not all there is. He draws on many other musical traditions, including classical bits, Broadway stuff, a collage of many traditions, under the control of the hip hop framework. But yes, it’s cultural appropriation, or cultural assimilation, which are close to the same thing.
DN: This brings to mind Mozart’s opera “Escape from the Seraglio” and the fascination with all things Turkish that swept Europe in the 17th and 18th century, which goes along with your point that history is a process of becoming.
PW: That’s one of the main themes of Herodotus in his history, when he contrasts the Greeks to the Egyptians. He says the Egyptians have no capacity at all to absorb that which is not their own. He says the Scythians execute anyone who borrows a foreign custom. The Persians will copy, but only slavishly. The great originality of the Greeks, which is the stand in for the West in Herodotus, is that they have this capacity to creatively absorb the best ideas of other people.
DN: The Judeo-Christian tradition itself is a fusion, as the name itself suggests. And the West grew up blending that religious blend with Classical Greece and Rome. The new AP European History framework, by the way, runs over 200 pages and the term “Judeo-Christian” shows up just one time — and that is to announce that it had been eclipsed in the 20th century.
PW: It’s interesting that it shows up at all. So without even introducing it, they announce its exit.
DN: I’m thinking of the concept of the individual and of limits to the state, and thinking of the phrase, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but render unto God that which is God’s.” Is there anything outside the West that parallels those separate spaces for church, state and individual?
PW: You are asking an anthropologist, so I’ll give you an anthropologist’s answer. What you are talking about is Indo-European in origin, and you can find some version of it in the Hindu states of India before the Muslim conquest. If you are looking anywhere to find something like it, that’s where I would go. But the short answer is that this is a very distinctively Indo-European pattern. An interesting light on it is offered by Herodotus, where he contemplates the difference between the Persians and the Greeks. He notes that the Persian world does not have space for any independent judgment on the part of the populace.
DN: And is the dual emphases on both the individual and on civil society outside of state control distinctively Western?
PW: That is the West, the core concept of Western Civilization, expressed in many ways over the centuries, but it’s very close to what it means to be Western.
DN: And is feminism part of this as well? I’m thinking of Christ’s conversations with his friends, Mary and Martha. Is there any passage in recorded history or literature prior to this text that treats women as equal and autonomous individuals?
PW: In recorded history, not that I know of. Not that I’m deeply read on Assyrian or Babylonian classics, but I expect there is little to be found there. In the anthropological world, one can find small-scale societies where the division of labor by sex has left more room to assert a degree of female autonomy. But I would not push that analogy very far. For the most part, the division of labor by sex is a cultural universal, and it has pretty significantly favored male rule over women. That was, as you noted, challenged by Jesus, and the course of European history eventually gave rise to a pretty strong counter push. Feminism is certainly not able to claim much of a precedent in any other civilization. It’s a Western development.