I often wonder how many people outside the Academy realize (or care?) how severe the attack on Western Civilization is within the Academy as students and faculty on a growing number of campuses across the country have determined that Western Civilization is the source of most of the world’s problems today. Indeed, I wonder how many people within the Academy are aware of the seriousness of the problem.
In a recent acceptance speech at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni annual banquet, one of the recipients of their “Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education,” Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Fellow at the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, paints a bleak picture indeed. She cites a battle at Stanford University in 2016 in which a group of students sought to reinstate a course requirement in “Western Civilization” that had been eradicated 25 years ago. The attempt was overwhelmingly rejected by the student body.
“In the run-up to the vote, one Stanford student [a young woman in this case] wrote in the Stanford Daily that ‘a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.'”
The ignorance of this student’s comment beggars belief and, sad to say, it is a view that is shared by what many think is the majority of students (and faculty) on today’s campuses. Let’s take a look at this comment.
To begin with, one course requirement would not result in an education “centered” on Western Civilization. The is what logicians call a “straw man” and it is a fallacy. The young lady would know this if she knew more about Western Civilization, since logic was first formalized by Aristotle and later refined by the Schoolastics during the Middle Ages. In any event, even if the course were required, it would not comprise the whole of the students’ study for his or her four years. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that there could not also be a requirement in “Eastern Civilization” as well. But, more to the point, the comment ignores the benefits of Western Civilization that this student has chosen to ignore — if, indeed, she was aware of them. I speak of such things as women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, individual freedom, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression (which makes possible ignorant comments like that of the student in question). As Ms Ali points out:
“One cannot dismiss the sum total of Western Civilization without losing one’s moral compass. And one cannot participate meaningfully in the battle of ideas raging in the world today while dismissing the value of Western Civilization as a whole.”
While there are many things to note and regret about the luggage that has been brought with them by folks who have struggled to create what we call “Western Civilization,” and here we would have to acknowledge the half-truth hidden in the rhetoric of the Stanford student, we must insist upon a wider perspective and note the extraordinary beauty in Western art, the intellectual triumphs, the moral gains (as noted above) that form the warp and woof of Western Civilization. Perspective, when speaking of such a large issue, is essential. And this student has lost hers entirely (if she ever had it to begin with). To take an obvious example, capitalism, for all its faults, has made it possible for this particular student to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She bites the hand that feeds her.
As one who has read, taught, and defended the Great Books of the Western World I have an obvious bias against this sort of blanket condemnation. But even if this were not the case, the intolerance built into the ignorant comment by this student would be disquieting. After all, college is a place where one broadens one’s mind, not shrinks it — ideally. And the comment reflects the growing attitude on many college campuses across the country that results in the exclusion of certain “types” of speakers from appearing on campus, because they represent views that are regarded as unacceptable. This includes Ms Ali who was denied access to Brandeis University by militant students and faculty after initially being invited to speak about the crisis within Islam and receive an honorary degree. It is an attitude that has also resulted in the prohibition against saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts, an attitude that reflects a fascist approach to eduction — if this is not, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The “battle of ideas” requires that we keep an open mind.
My concerns are obvious to anyone who has read any of my blogs. But I do not think they are misplaced or even exaggerated. Higher education is supposed to be a place where the students do not learn certain things, necessarily, but they learn to use their minds to determine which things are worth knowing and which things are not. And a blanket condemnation of the whole of “Western Civilization” by a group of students at Stanford University who, we may assume, know little or nothing about that which they reject, is nothing short of presumptuous, if not arrogant. And the fact that the faculty at Stanford did not take the lead in determining which courses were to be required in the first place is also to be regretted, but not surprising in an age in which the students and the children are mistaken for those who should lead rather than follow. And here we have a graphic example of why they should not be allowed to lead.
Very good post, Hugh! No culture, no civilization, be it Western, Eastern, or other, is comprised of only positive or negative. We are all a combination, and in the study of any country or culture, there is benefit to be derived from studying BOTH the positive and the negative. From the one, we learn what has been done right, and from the other we learn the lessons of history that we should not repeat. The comment by the student was among the most inane I have ever heard! And for the University to make decisions based on such inanity is … beyond belief. Whatever happened to ‘open exchange of ideas’ and ‘learning to think for oneself’? If I had a college-age child right now, I think I would send him/her abroad for their education! Else homeschool 😀
I couldn’t agree more. The high tuition alone is enough to discourage parents, but with what we know about what is going on tithe colleges it’s even more reason to ship the kids elsewhere!
Yes, over the years your insights into our changing – devolving?- culture are like the canary in the cage…. some people in the world note/listen, and others are too caught up in their task for the moment to even notice..
I can picture you writing short stories – perhaps the sage is the fortune teller on the street that most ignore but some take seriously.. or it could be an ‘evolved’ parrot that is quite selective regarding those to pass on premonitions of trouble….
The spoiled “I don’t want to wade through a long classic’ type of student – or adult- might be able to stick through short fiction…. ha, especially if the stories become popular enough to make it to television!
Why not? People think they are learning history by attending a play about Alexander Hamilton! So it goes….
I couldn’t agree more with your post. it seems to be the trendy politically correct thing to do these days to attack the very system that gave these regressive leftists the freedom to come out against the system for which they claim to have so much hatred and disdain. They will bash capitalism while using an IPhone to do it, will attack anyone who doesn’t agree with their version of free speech yet they’ll bow down at the altar of other belief systems that are contrary to our vision of freedom and tolerance, systems in which oppression and inequality are commonplace, even thought of as necessary to control people but if you jettisoned these people into a culture which they worship from afar, it wouldn’t be long until they were on bended knee, begging to be once again a part of the system which they railed against for so very long.
Very well said. It’s easy (too easy) to criticize what’s near at hand because what’s so far away looks so much better. As they say, the grass is greener…. What’s so discouraging is that these kids — and a great many faculty — have no idea what it is they are prepared to jettison in the name of the latest fashion.