The Vanishing Western Tradition

It is astonishing that those in the West are living through the near extinction of their civilization. For students in the Academy today, the Western Civilization history course, virtually a standard curriculum offering 30 years ago, has disappeared.

This survey course covering classical antiquity to the present was the glue, the all-embracing narrative, that gave coherence to everything else the university taught. At the very least, students came away from this course with a partial recognition of their civilization and its monumental achievements.

Now Western civilization survey courses have been eliminated from the general education requirements, replaced in large part by courses and programs that either undermine traditions in the West or “Balkanize” the curriculum. Latino studies, for example, exalt the accomplishments of Spanish speaking people. Black studies emphasize the plight of blacks in white societies. Women’s studies superordinate the role of women. However, white studies denounce male dominated, colonial societies. American history, on the rare occasion it is required, tells a story of conflict, exploitation and imperial goals. Third World studies is ostensibly a rehearsal of abuse and unfair dominance by the West.

Is it any wonder, poll after poll demonstrates students are alienated from their own culture? Clearly many of those who will eventually assume leadership positions are no longer learning about their civilization’s triumphs and its singular role in transforming the human condition.

According to a National Association of Scholars report issued in 2011, “The Vanishing West: 1964-2010,” only two percent of colleges offer western civilization as a course requirement. Remarkably, western civilization is rarely even required for history majors. By contrast, most institutions from 1964 through the 1970s did have this requirement. In 1987 Jesse Jackson led Stanford protestors in a chant of “hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go.” The purpose of this demonstration was to eliminate a course on Western Civilization, and, mirabile dictu, Jackson and his claque were successful. From the triumphs of the West — such as individual rights, the rule of law, minority rights, free markets, the search for truth, the separation of church and state –emerged a form of curriculum apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, colonialism. The course that stood as the foundation stone in the curriculum was shattered by an ideological bandwagon.

In the absence of this foundation, the curriculum began spinning out of control into a phantasmagoria of offerings, many narrow in scope, many trivial in nature and many adhering to notions of political correctness.

Considering the Zeitgeist, it is unlikely the curriculum trend can be easily reversed. But it is worth asking: if the purpose of education is to be literate about our past, shouldn’t some emphasis be put on the transmission of culture, especially the culture students inhabit? Shouldn’t historians consider a fundamental responsibility for preserving our civic culture and the historical memory of our civilization?

Unless we are nihilistic, these questions should be answered in the affirmative. Redressing the wrongs of curriculum revision will not occur overnight. But those in the Academy would be remiss, even culpable, if some effort to reintroduce Western Civilization into the college course of study were not entertained.

Matthew Arnold once noted that universities have an obligation to teach the best that is known and thought. However, he engaged in a lamentation, Dover Beach, when he realized the direction the Academy was taking. “But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” The time has come to hear a chorus of restoration and approval so that the West and its accomplishments are once again acknowledged and appreciated.