Blogs > Cliopatria > Who's Afraid of Western Civilization

Mar 9, 2005 3:54 pm

Who's Afraid of Western Civilization

As anyone who reads Cliopatria’s comment threads knows, I often disagree with KC Johnson’s highly critical and I think sometimes speculatively unfair characterizations of his targets. In the case of a petition by UNC faculty regarding a planned donation by the Pope Foundation to support a minor in Western Civilization, I think there are many legitimate reasons to insist on due diligence above and beyond what might be expected with a grant from the Mellon Foundation. That to my mind is a pragmatic recognition of the difference between a highly ideological donor who has previously had an antagonistic relationship to the status quo in higher education and a donor who has a long history of being highly accommodating to scholarly interests. Mellon has a track record that alarms no one in higher education; Pope has no track record and a lot of baggage. Wariness is perfectly justified.

I also feel it’s important not to try and use a somewhat biased or slanted sample of the faculty signatories to speak for what the entire group intends. For the group, what you’ve got is their letter. The discussion begins and ends there if you want to make an argument about what the entire group believes.

That being said, let’s move away a bit from the specifics of that conversation. It’s clear that at least a few of the signatories oppose the Pope grant on more expansive grounds, on the grounds that Western civilization is already more than adequately represented within UNC’s curriculum, and that the supply of more courses on this topic would be a kind of wretched excess. For some faculty, at UNC and elsewhere, this may be not just excess, but an excess that they believe produces a negative ideological impact by its very nature.

This is a relatively common line of reasoning in my own field of specialization. It makes some sense in some contexts. The old curricular form of the “Western civilization” survey course, which survives in some places, really was a very ideological, very political project. It was not the neutral or objective “core” of some bland, pleasant, usefully shared cultural knowledge that those who nostalgically pine for it believe it to be.

Here I don’t so much have in mind certain kinds of boilerplate or overwrought moral arguments about Western Europe’s impact on the world since 1492. The old Western Civilization survey was a problem not just because of the sorts of anti-intellectual exclusions it often promoted (say, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s infamous statement that the history of Africa was nothing but “darkness” until the arrival of Europeans) but also because of the way that it uncritically parroted a highly interested self-portrait of the history of the West whose genesis lies in the Renaissance and which was exaggerated by 19th Century nationalism. That history, looked at with the conventional tools and outlook of modern historical scholarship, looks at the least simplistic, at the worst actively and perniciously false.

This is exactly why, however, the opportunity to fund a new program in “Western civilization” might be tremendously valuable, something that academics and especially historians ought to welcome. It may be true that there are many courses at the average university that could said to be about the “Western tradition”, but their connections are often unusually weak or ad hoc, perhaps more so than is already ordinary in most college curricula. Having more courses on these topics seems valuable enough; having the opportunity to shape them into some kind of coherent program of study seems even better.

Better because it seems to me that “Western Civilization” is a thing which we need to investigate with fresh eyes and an awareness of just how many questions about it remain open to debate. Leave behind the presumptions of some conservatives that the Western tradition is invariably noble, our lost inheritance; leave behind the pious and often tediously self-righteous negative characterizations of the West that accompany scholarship in many other fields. The “Western tradition” is undeniably real, and also powerfully imaginary: said to be many things, said to be one thing.

A strong program in Western civilization could focus on and investigate on the insight of Thomas de Zengotita that even critics of the Enlightenment must rely on the terms and concepts of the Enlightenment to voice their criticism. Postcolonial theorists are only too aware of that, but see that fact as a trap, a tragedy. De Zengotita sees it as a more neutral fact of modernity, and others could choose to see it entirely positively. I think you can make a very strong argument that many of the innovations in human governance and society attributed to the Enlightenment are like technologies: attention is due to the conditions and constraints of their invention, but once invented, they are usable by anyone, in any context, without necessarily always being marked by their inventor. I don’t have to think of Pasteur when I take an antibiotic: the use is not reduced to the point of genesis. The major point is, this could be an area for lively debate, for the teaching and research of unresolved, open-ended questions that bring together a diversity of scholars and views. Studying these issues doesn't take legitimate attention away from non-Western societies, as if history was a zero-sum game. In fact, it enhances the study of those societies, because the centerpiece of the debate is about just how plastic and capacious the "Western tradition" is or potentially might become.

Are classical Greece and Rome really “Western”, or is that just a self-aggrandizing idea first spread by Western Europeans during the Renaissance? Couldn’t a new program in Western Civilization raise that question in exciting new ways that would bring medievalists, early modernists and classicists together?

There are a whole host of issues, problems, questions and debates that I think could be usefully collated and concentrated by a program of study in Western civilization, one that wouldn’t take the object of its study for granted, whether to praise or condemn. I’m not sure why that prospect is so deeply objectionable to a fairly substantial number of historians and other scholars.

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More Comments:

Timothy James Burke - 3/11/2005

Thank you, Tyler. That's a very useful confirmation of some of what I've been trying to point out in our other discussions about this proposal.

Tyler Curtain - 3/11/2005

I am one of the signers (the "UNC 71") of the letter to the UNC Chapel Hill administration.

Tim Burke's proposed outline for studies in western civilizations does not differ substantially from the original document submitted by the faculty committee last year. Every one of of these points were, in some form or another, suggested and applauded in college-wide faculty meetings. Of course there were those who find any discussion of "Western Civilization" suspect, and there were a few who think that the entire enterprise is a Trojan horse to swing Chapel Hill to the right. Most are eager to lend their expertise to a sustained, rigorous discussion of a complex subject. As a board member of UNC's Program in Sexuality Studies, I can assure you that we are looking forward to cross-listing our classes and teaching core courses.

As someone who knows most of the scholars who signed the letter, I can also assure you that the politics of the signatories are all over the map. That we came together to ask for transparency in negotiations is itself striking. Dean Grey Little has wide-spread support on campus and is sincerely liked. We believe that she understands our skepticism about the Pope Foundation's motives, and we hope that the Pope Foundation understands that personal attacks against members of the faculty damages their relationship with the college as a whole.

My comments are my own. I speak for neither UNC Chapel Hill nor any of the other 70 who signed a letter about procedural openness.

Greg James Robinson - 3/9/2005

I think Tim's comments, both about the nature (and justice) of the protests against the Pope grant and about some of the problems of "Western Civilization" are on target. Of course, I still chuckle when I think ofthe story of Gandhi's response when asked what he thought of "western civilization": "It would be a good idea."

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/9/2005

Maybe conservatives will be pissed off, maybe not. I don't think there are that many conservativse who want or expect a renewed empahsis on Western Civilization to be the same as a return to the old way of doing things.

(I have no doubt someone can come up with an example of someone who does want to go back.)

They know the scholarhsip will be more critical of that tradition than, say, 50 years ago. They know that studying the West will mean considerable emphasis on boundary areas, and the exchange, peaceful and violent, of ideas and wealth. Heck, conservative scholarhip itself is more congniscent of the impact of social orders and economic systems on individuals than it used to be. (Think about how much anti-communist literature agrees with Marx that ownerhip and the means of production determines values.)

I don't know about this grant, or the organization giving it. But on the surface it seems like the people opposing are pissing on something that could be really neat.

Adam Kotsko - 3/9/2005

But it does seem like the Western Civ curriculum that Dr. Burke is proposing would end up pissing off conservatives more, not less. After all, someone like Derrida pisses almost everyone off, and he was far from just ignoring Western Civilization and fetishizing everywhere else -- he was constantly writing about Plato, Kant, Heidegger, etc., good Westerners to a man.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/9/2005

I agree with Tim here: I don't see any reason why a program in Western cultures would or should be, ipso facto, celebratory or critical of the Western tradition. More generally, it seems to me that History as a discipline gains when more types and areas, rather than less, are studied.