Under Attack

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.

Concerned Students

You may have read about the football team at the University of Missouri that has refused to play again until the president of the university resigns his post. The story reads, in part:

Several African-American Missouri students have been protesting what they say is systematic racism on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. The latest incident came Oct. 24 when a swastika made of feces was smeared on the wall of a dorm bathroom. . . .Jonathan Butler, is on a hunger strike until [President] Wolfe is removed from his position.

Prior to that, Payton Head, the head of the Missouri Students Association, said several people in a passing truck yelled racial slurs at him while he was walking. And several other groups and individuals have noted racist treatment while on campus.

This is a serious situation indeed and the actions of the students, which have been supported by the rest of the team and the coach, are to be applauded. It is refreshing to see students interested in something other than sports and the upcoming party. But, I must ask, is this the issue to focus attention upon? To be sure, it touches directly many of the students who are black and others who are in sympathy with them. This is clear and not at all a bad thing. But, again, we see action being taken because of an issue that is fiercely personal and touches these athletes directly. What about larger issues?

Political activism is a part of our heritage. We are a nation founded on protest and a willingness to fight for principles. But what are the principles here? Racism is a fact of life and it should not be. That much is clear. But there are huge problems “out there” away from the campus that the students seem to be unaware of despite the fact that they affect those students and athletes directly and which, while seemingly not personal, will make their lives a terrible struggle in coming years. I speak, of course, of things such as global warming, the torture of other human beings by our government, expanding human populations, the continuing buildup of weapons of mass destruction around the world, not to mention the continued party bickering by our elected officials who should be turning their collective attention to those very issues.

Students in the past have occasionally protested such things as the investments of their universities in companies that threaten the planet and this strikes me as very laudable. These protests have been small, however, and have had fair results at places like Harvard University. But the irony here is that the protest at Missouri involves more students and those students are athletes in a sport that is of vital concern to the students themselves and the boosters who will, eventuality, put enough pressure on the president to resign — I predict. Therefore, they will get results, after which things will go back to normal. After all, we can’t have a Saturday afternoon at a NCAA Division I school pass without a rally, a big game and a party after.*

The irony I am reaching for here is that this is a tempest in a teapot compared to the larger issues that the students are simply unaware of or indifferent to. This problem will be quickly resolved while the larger ones continue to be ignored.  Their education should make these students ready to protest issues much larger than racism, issues that affect all of us and all of our children and their children as well. Racism is ugly and should not be tolerated. But so are the larger issues mentioned above which, for the most part, continue to be ignored by college and university students. This fact alone is an indictment of our educational system which should be teaching these students to get worked up over issues that may not affect them immediately and directly today, but are much larger and more threatening to themselves, and the rest of us, in the long run.

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  • Within hours of drafting this post President Wolfe resigned.