Classics, Classics Series, Education, recent

The Future of Our Ancient Past

This is part one of a four part series on the Classics. Part two will be published tomorrow.

Australian National University’s decision to reject a large donation from the Ramsay Centre has brought the topic of Western civilization to the forefront once again. For me, the most pressing question is about the future of classics, the discipline that has long claimed to deal with the foundations of Western civilizations. I’ve previously helped teach a course called “Origins of Political Thought,” and I’m preparing to teach another with the title “Foundations of Western Political Thought” next year. But should anyone still be teaching courses on “Western Civ”?

My answer, in a word, is yes. There’s nothing wrong with teaching Western Civilization or the Western classics alongside other cultural traditions. At the same time, the way Classics used to be taught is gone for good. In many ways, that’s a good thing: the traditional classical education was astonishingly narrow, and often gave the impression that the tradition it dealt with was the only game in town. Luckily, educators today live in an increasingly globalized environment, where exposure to other traditions is far easier to come by than it used to be. We should seize every opportunity to engage with and allow space to these other cultural traditions—but we should also continue to offer a high-quality education in the Western classics.

The traditional classical education, as offered by Britain’s private schools, tended to focus almost entirely on Latin and Greek. This was the education Thomas Hughes recalled in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857); but it was also at the core of the education received by more modern figures like Aldous Huxley. Nor was this only a British obsession: Harvard’s 1869 entrance exam shows the same fixation with the ancient languages. The fixation continued until the Second World War and beyond; Latin was a requirement for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge until 1960.

A more accessible approach to the classics was afforded by “Great Books” courses, which focused on the classics in translation. Many of these courses are still going strong today; examples include the Columbia Core Curriculum and the Great Books Curriculum at St. John’s College. But though Great Books courses did more to broaden the mind than a narrow training in classical philology, they still didn’t do much to broaden it beyond the West. To this day, neither the Columbia nor the St. John’s courses feature any non-Western works.

It’s easy to think of reasons why the traditional classical education was as narrow as it was. Most of these courses came into being at a time when exposure to non-Western languages and cultures was simply much harder to come by than it is today. Translations of even canonical works from non-Western cultures weren’t as widely available. Still, none of this justifies contemporary philosophy curricula that don’t feature any non-Western philosophers. And if it used to be difficult to be exposed to non-Western cultures or to get hold of non-Western classics, that’s no longer the case.

In fact, that other classical traditions exist is now so obvious that it raises the question of whether the study of the Western classics should still be known as “classics” without some additional qualification. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call the subject something like “Western classics?” You could argue that it should be assumed that “classics” in a Western country means “Western classics,” but in our increasingly cosmopolitan world, it might be better to be absolutely clear. Stipulating that one “classics” course focuses on the Western classics would also allow more space for other courses—Chinese classics, for example—to be offered at the same institutions.

In any case, we live in a multi-cultural world, and that means the old way of studying (Western) classics, as if they were the be-all and end-all, is no longer an option. The students at Reed College who protested their institution’s mandatory foundation course in humanities for being too Western had a point: The course was meant to be a general introduction to the humanities, and by including only Western material, it implied that the Western classics could provide an introduction to world culture on their own.

I think there are two ways forward for those of us who want to continue teaching Western Civ. The first is to open up Western Civ courses so that they also include non-Western material, making them into “Global Civ” or genuinely global “Introduction to the Humanities” courses. The other is to label them clearly as “Western” and teach them alongside courses in Islamic or Polynesian civilization. The  reformed foundation course at Reed College, which includes separate modules on modern Mexico and New York as well as ancient Greece, combines both these options.

At the institutional level, classics departments could integrate specialists in Chinese, Indian, and other classical civilizations into departments that currently focus exclusively on Mediterranean antiquity; the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie, for example, already includes Egypt, Israel, and the Near East in its remit, alongside Greece and Rome. Or they could re-label themselves as departments of Western or European classics – or, alternatively, of Mediterranean or Greco-Roman Civilization, making clear that there’s no implicit claim to universality.

In terms of research, the study of interactions between Western and non-Western cultures should continue and intensify (Oxford’s Gandhara Connections project is a good example of work of this kind). But it should also be complemented by the comparative work of scholars like Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, which don’t depend on actual linkages being established between individual cultures.

Departments of ancient civilizations will be in a particularly good position to do inter-disciplinary work of this sort, with specialists in different ancient cultures interacting on a daily basis. But departments that remain dedicated to Greece and Rome should also should seize the opportunity to reach out to scholars in other departments and engage with their areas of study.

In the end, though, inter-disciplinary exchange depends on there being people trained in different disciplines. Getting a good sense of the Western classics demands mastery of a range of languages and skills, and that’s something that is usually enough for one scholarly career. If we want high-quality inter-disciplinary work on global civilizations, we don’t just need to have more research in non-Western cultures. We also need to keep teaching and researching Western Civ.

James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington and the current co-ordinator of Heterodox Classics, endorsed by Heterodox Academy. Follow him on Twitter @Kleisthenes2.


  1. Aylwin says

    “cultural traditions”? Aren’t classics, of whatever ilk, something more than culture or tradition (or history)? Isn’t Classics (of ancient Greece and Rome) about a particular period of exceptional thought, both in terms of content and influence? By all means call it something specific to its time and place, but let’s not assume all cultures and traditions are equally worthy of study. I’m not arguing one particular thing is better than others, just that it is surely the case that the thought and art of some cultures and traditions are necessarily more worthy of study than others – but saying that is taboo! A taboo that this article seems to be striving to avoid breaking … perhaps this is a nice setup for the second installment?

    • Loren says

      How do “classic” materials somehow transcend the cultures or traditions that produced them? Wasn’t the exceptional thought that issued from ancient Greece or Persia or China or India produced by members of those societies? I didn’t read anything about all cultures or traditions being equally worthy of study– it just depends on your focus of study. Not quite sure what you’re arguing here.

      • Yes, to some extent I do think some works are more worthy of study than others – if we didn’t believe that on some level, we couldn’t have Great Books courses, or even syllabi at all (since any kind of selection involves some selectivity). One thing about culture, though, is that we’re in a realm where taste and other sorts of preferences play a significant role. So, in a biology course, I’d have no problem saying ‘Darwin’s theory should be taught as superior to Lamarck’s,’ because I believe one to be true and the other to be false. Now, even if you think Pindar is better than Du Fu (or whatever), it’s clear that the issue isn’t one that can be decided once and for all by the application of evidence. And, even if you think that Thucydides is a better historian than Sima Qian or Ibn Khaldun, there may be an educational benefit in also reading those other historians, a benefit which is greater (I would argue) than reading Lamarck, or other scientists whose theories didn’t quite hold up.

        • Isn’t the study of *incorrect* scientific philosophies also valuable insofar as they reveal a great deal of scientific theory to be theoretical rather than factual in nature? They look, from this vantage point, to be a part of the immense rational mountain that one must climb in order to know the truth about even the smallest grain of sand.

          I am thinking specifically of your example of reading Lamarck and Darwin, Darwin of course being the clear superior. Having attended a course in which both were read and discussed, I found the difference very interesting and illuminating. Other science survey courses would give the “known to be true theories” such as Darwin’s the spotlight and leave Lamarck out entirely. I think the latter type of course succeeds in surveying what our world holds to be true, but fails in teaching its students the difficulties or even impossibilities of coming up with a good (i.e. “true”) theory.

          This is not to disturb your bigger point, which was to state that we should read a wider range of historians in a history course. My only thought on this, and this is probably the obvious response from most science survey courses about my thought above, is that there is simply a lack of time to dedicate to each thinker or scientist in question. So, ultimately you must be selective. Either one must pick a metric that determines the “best” works or the widest variety or one great person from every major culture, etc. No matter what metric you choose, a broad survey course will lack breadth or depth or something in between.

          My opinion: pick the best works, ask very good questions, and give students lists of books that didn’t make the cut but are worth the time to read after the course is complete. Spark interest and don’t say “you’ve completed all thought about evolution!” after the student has read a few selections from The Origin of Species.

  2. I matriculated at cambridge in 1979 long after 1960 and I needed Latin perhaps this was a college not a university requirement.

    It does seem appropriate that the civilisations from around the world are studied. Cross civilisation influences and comparions seem a very fruitful area for study but two things should be recognised.

    Not all civilisations are of equal depth or importance in terms of their influence in the modern world. It makes sense that the history and influences of western civlisation has an additional focus within western civilisation.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      I agree. There’s value in learning about other civilizations that influenced the modern world (e.g. Chinese), but let’s not kid ourselves here, few if any have had the same effect on modernity as those taught in traditional classics (e.g. Greek & Roman).

      So, no, there’s nothing inherently illegitimate about offering (separate) courses on other non-Western civs per se, given there’s sufficient (student) demand to justify there inclusion, of course.

      • Thanks – this is basically all I’m arguing in this piece, that we should study both the Western classics and other civilizations (or give students the capacity to). I do agree that the West has had a big impact on modernity, though (as I’ll argue in Part 3), I’m not sure that the literary canon had all that much to do with that. Also, modernity isn’t everything – China and Islam were more influential than the West for large spans of human history, so I think the argument that students should spend some time looking at them as well is reasonably solid.

        AJ, I think you’re right that that must have been a college requirement, since I do believe that the universities dropped O-Level (as it was then) Latin as an entry requirement in 1960.

        • D.B. Cooper says

          @James Kierstead

          Also, modernity isn’t everything

          I take your point here. As stated, it does appear as if I was making an appeal to novelty. My language was a bit sloppy, and I should’ve been more careful not to generalize. I appreciate you pointing it out.

          That said, I’m not sure our intuitions align with respect to the (Western) literary canon’s impact on modern society. While I’ll wait to read what you have to say in Part 3, I would argue that until recent times, other than maybe the Catholic Church, secular literature – much of what we now consider to be the Western canon – played an outsized role in driving the socio-political narrative of the time for much of Western society.

  3. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    What? Me first? Ok … The author’s views are respectable, but in the current climate, where the Warriors are attempting to destroy Western civilization entirely, I myself would double down on teaching it, since it needs all the support it can get.

    • Yes I agree with you against those who think we should get rid of Western Civ courses. I think we should continue teaching them; though, as I indicate in the article, I think some of the critics’ arguments are reasonable and we could take some steps to accommodate them.

  4. I taught Western Civ last semester at a small tech college to a diverse student body. Their absolute favorite time period was classical Greece and Rome. They had no idea that ancient societies were so highly evolved and bequeathed us so many important ideas and traditions. Don’t trash it. There is an audience.

    • Glad to hear it. I agree we shouldn’t trash it – we should keep on teaching it, though maybe in a different way than in the past, and alongside other Civs.

  5. Denis Leonard says

    While, in some respects, the article seems encouraging, the “Global Civ” comment was not so much. Is dissolution the answer? In a world of unlimitted information, the human mind can only process and retain so much. Why not offer as much as possible with as much specificity as possible within a given context. Compartmentalized information, if you will, like a college course. Then let people choose according to their inclination and predilection.

    What I detect in the authors bend over backwards attempt to be resonable is more appology for the excesses of Western civilization, arguably, the most successful the planet has ever seen. For the moment anyway.

    • You’re right that we can only do so much in a single college course, and that that means we have to choose to include some things and include others. I think there are two options: 1) broad-brush ‘World Civ’ courses; and 2) focused ‘Western Civ’ courses alongside other ‘Civ’ courses, which students choose some number of. Of course, both these options might be tried at different institutions, or even within the same institution.

      As you’ll see in Part 3, I do think Western civilization has done some bad things, as well as some good things. I think similar statements could be made about Islamic and Chinese civilization. I think that these civilizations should all be taught in a similar objective and even-handed manner. I don’t think we should stop studying Western Civ because it was uniquely vicious (as some seem to be arguing at the moment).

  6. X. Citoyen says

    With friends like you, the classics don’t need enemies.

    To pick one of many cringes, you think the students had a point in complaining about the content of the course? What deep insight did these uneducated 18-year-olds have that moved you to support changing the curriculum? Nothing but the ideological cant they picked up from celebrities. But, hey, I guess what celebrities say is just as good as what Aristotle had to say because, you know, it’s all relative.

    Your entire piece is informed by cultural relativism. It’s all “civilizations/cultures.” Study this one, study that one. Whatever suits you, student-customer! If it’s all the same, you have no case. You’re just competing to sell your tastes with other taste-sellers.

    • +1

      What a weedy pushover this guy. Does he even like his specialty?

      This is what Reed College did to their Intro to Humanities course (which transformation the author praises and recommends):

      “Instead of focusing on the ancient Mediterranean, the team-taught course — which all first-year students take together, at the same time — will now consist of four different time- and place-based “modules.” Students will still study the humanistic traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and Athens in the first part of the course. But in the second half, students will engage with history and texts related to Mexico City in the 15th through 20th centuries, and Harlem from 1919 to 1952.”

      Why Mexico City? Why Harlem for god’s sake? Well, we can be certain those modules were NOT included as a result of any objective evaluation of the relative influence of their subject matter on world history. No sir. Rather, they were included to appease the mexicans and the blacks (and their white “allies”) who were agitating for “reparations”.

      (And actually, if you read the first article the author linked to on this subject, you’ll discover that it was mostly non-white students who finally confronted these protesters and kicked them out of class. Turns out most non-white students have no problem with a “Eurocentric” education. Hell, they love White Civilization.)

      As another commentator notes, these kinds of reforms will result in little more than lower quality courses. Too much information mashed together into a single semester leads, in fact, to a “narrower” understanding than in-depth focus on a single topic, time, writer, book, or whatever. It’s amazing the author, with all his erudition, doesn’t seem to grasp such an elementary truth.

      But then again, who cares? The Humanities are dying off anyway, and what we’re really talking about here is not education in any kind of “classical” sense, but infotainment and politics.

      And to think there’s 3 more parts of this garbage comin’ our way…

      • Helga says

        Why is Harlem so important that a few decades are equated with entire civilisations spanning hundreds of years?

        What influential ideas regarding the nature of humanity, governance and liberty came from mid twentieth century Harlem?

        The ideas from early Mediterranean cultures are still influential today. Mexico, not so much, but it arguably provides an interesting comparison point.

        Surely the reason to study cultural history is so students can learn where the ideas they take for granted came from, and how they developed. This allows us to question our assumptions in an informed way. A shopping list of drive-by glances at what diverse folks were doing at various points doesn’t even come close.

        It’s hard to imagine how a thinking person could approach this course without feeling embarrassed.

        • Robert Paulson says

          Thinking is bad because you could you might start to notice things, and if you start to notice things, you might start to value things, and if you start to value you things, you might start to value some over others, which is exclusive and this is bad because inequality.

      • Stephanie says

        Reminds me of an “American Literature” course I took in college, where we didn’t read the work of a single American.

      • JWatts says

        “Students will still study the humanistic traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and Athens in the first part of the course. But in the second half, students will engage with history and texts related to Mexico City in the 15th through 20th centuries, and Harlem from 1919 to 1952.””

        That sounds absurd. I could easily see a module on the ancient Med, then the early Islamic period 700-1000, and China 1000 to 1400 AD.

        But Mexico City and Harlem?

    • As you’ll see in Part 4, my intent is partly to help us reverse an apparent decline in enrollments. I think a middle way between a rejection of the very notion of Western Civ and an old-fashioned approach to such matters probably has the best success. It seems you disagree, so maybe you could tell me why you think my strategy will be unsuccessful. (Obviously, I won’t want to pursue it if I see good evidence that it will be…)

      I’m not sure I would say that the Reed students had any particular deep insight (though, of course, such things are rare). But I do think they had a point in objecting to a course that was presented as a general introduction to the humanities – and is, I believe, compulsory for all first-years – but that contains only Western works. It would be different if the course had been an elective course on Western Civ, offered alongside other Civs; or if it was a compulsory introduction to the Humanities that included non-Western works.

      I’m not a thorough-going relativist. I think, for example, that Darwin was right about the origins of species and that various folk and religious traditions have been wrong about it. But I do think that culture is the area is which relativism is at is strongest. And that taste plays a large role in literary and artistic judgment seems undeniable. Of course, taste varies without certain parameters: most people, I think, would agree in putting the Odyssey on a great books course. In the final analysis, though, taste is a major consideration in the cultural realm (along with with some other things – considerations of identity, for example, and a sense of a work’s historical influence).

      So I think we should be open to the community’s preferences in Great Books course more than we would in a maths course, where people’s preferences about how they think maths should work don’t really matter at all. And I think it’s reasonable, in a multicultural world, that we should offer Western Civ courses but also other Civ courses too.

      • That was in response to X. Citoyen’s comment. BreathNumber, I suppose it’s possible that I’m a weedy pushover, but where do you see evidence for that in the above article? Couldn’t it simply be the case that I have decided on certain opinions as the best ones, and the ones most likely to help my field, and that they happen to be a combination of views from both sides of the debate? More importantly, which of my arguments do you think would be undermined if the statement that I am a weedy pushover was true? So, like ‘giraffes are tall,’ it may be true, but not relevant. I can answer your question about whether I like my specialty quite directly: Yes, I do.

        I’m not entirely sure why they focused on Mexico and Harlem. I wouldn’t necessarily feature those periods so prominently in a course I designed, but I do think there are many different ways of designing a Global Civ course, and that one doesn’t strike me as absolutely terrible. I certainly don’t think you have to believe in reparations in order to think that course might be an interesting one. I haven’t seen any data on whether ethnicity is a good predictor of preferences for various types of Civ courses.

        Your point about the pragmatics of doing large survey-courses is a good one. It is difficult to fit everything in, but I think there is a solution to that, which is to teach things at a higher level of generality. You can teach world history in a term – it will just be much more general than a term-long course on Greek history, or even a year-long course in world history. That’s partly why I think there are really two options – 1) Global Civ courses which include modules on different time periods or 2) completely separate courses focusing on different Civs.

        Anyway, thanks for your comment – I hope you enjoy the rest of the series more!

        • Helga, I don’t know enough about the Reed course to comment on why they included the time periods they did, but it might be worth bearing in mind that other considerations go into designing first-year courses than judgments about which topics are most worthy. So, for example, asking students to study two different time-scales might be useful, since that might force them to write a broader essay about classical Athens, and a more focused engagement with Harlem (exercising different skills in the process). I don’t know enough about Harlem to comment on what ideas came out of it, but, though great influence might be one reason for studying a period or a text, I don’t think it’s the only reason for studying a period or a text. (I say this as someone who’s published on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia.) So, it might be good to combine one very influential set of works with something more niche.

          Robert, I agree that some sorts of aesthetic judgment involve exclusion (‘I’m going to read Robertson Davies rather than Maurice Gee’) of a sort – a sort that I don’t think is anything like (or anything like as bad as) more personal sorts of exclusion. At the same time, aesthetic judgments can’t be made as decisively as, for example, results of mathematics or findings of science. I think it follows that humanities curricula can be more flexible than scientific ones.

          Stephanie, that does sound like a curious course, although sometimes the definition of ‘American’ and similar terms is looser when we’re talking about cultural matters. Compare ‘English literature,’ which might include people whose first language wasn’t even English, like Joseph Conrad. I say this as someone who’s written an article about Karl Popper as a part of New Zealand’s intellectual history, even though he only spent a few years in the country.

        • JWatts says

          “I’m not entirely sure why they focused on Mexico and Harlem”

          I liked your article and generally respect your replies. But this comment isn’t respectful to the audience. You know why they focused on Mexico and Harlem, just like any reasonably intelligent person knows.

          They focused on those two because of racism, not from any great intellectual knowledge to be gained. This decision was purely political and designed to appease certain racial/ethnic groups.

          Focusing on China, Islam, or Indian early civilization would have made sense from a pure academic or intellectual point of view. But you didn’t have student activists (and probably some political faculty) pushing for an intellectual point of view.

          • Thank you for your kind words. I agree that, if I wanted to design a Global Civ course that gave a proportionate sense of the influence of different cultures and time periods, I would give a lot of time to Islam and China and less to Harlem (though Mexico would feature to some extent).

            I suppose what I am wanting to leave open is the possibility that personal cultural considerations – though very harmful and distorting if taken to extremes – might play some permissible role. For example, during my first year at school in Dorset, we spent a good amount of time studying local history, reading Thomas Hardy, and so on. From a eagle’s eye view of human culture, that made very little sense. Dorset was never a cultural behemoth. But I think it was appropriate to spend some amount of time on local culture, before moving onto a broader study of British, European, and world history.

            Similarly, I wouldn’t want to stop some people choosing a Western Civ course because they saw it as ‘their culture’ in some sense. (Though I hope their university would also compel or encourage them to engage with other cultures too.) At the same time, I don’t begrudge people who see Mexico or Harlem as part of their culture some time to study those periods.

            There’s a sense in which you could call that ‘appeasing certain ethnic groups,’ but I think that would apply to people who want to study Western Civ for cultural reasons too. In any case, what you describe as ‘political’ may simply be being responsive to community demand to some extent, and is that a bad thing? As I’ve said above, I don’t think it would be appropriate to design a maths curriculum based partly on cultural preferences, but it might make sense to be somewhat open to cultural preferences when we’re dealing with culture.

        • James, let me obviate a potentially overlong response by simply saying that I’m not unreasonable; I know you wouldn’t have been published here at all if you took a harder line. And that, indeed, is a problem.

      • X. Citoyen says

        Thanks for the thoughtful response, James.

        How do we counter low enrolment?

        Look at the numbers about what’s growing and what’s dying. Enrolment is shrinking at mid-tier, run-of-the-mill humanities programs, all of which have already done what you’re proposing to do (my alma mater did this 20 years ago). The most acute hits have been at colleges who’ve made the news for being activist hotbeds. Part of the trend comes down to the rising costs of tuition against the declining return on investment—a humanities degree isn’t worth what it used to be. But enrolment is still strong in hard core traditional humanities programs and, more telling, it is growing at sectarian colleges and universities in the U.S.—yes, religious schools are growing in the U.S. Why? Add the first point to the second and you have your answer: Because they have positioned themselves against the current.

        As universities give up on the classics, private schools have embraced classical education. Have a look at the renaissance of the trivium (in revised form) in the U.S. and Canada. Granted, these programs are pre-college, but their growth speaks to interest. Second, look at how private industry has supplied the desire for classical education. The Great Courses, to name one, has become a multi-million dollar business selling course on the classics. And, as the founder said in an interview for City Journal, his biggest problem isn’t selling courses, it’s finding quality lecturers.

        Now look at where the demand for change comes from: a handful of predominantly white upper-middle class activists. They seem like the voice of many, but it’s only because they’re the only ones allowed to speak in universities. Break down the numbers and you’ll find (1) that they are a tiny minority who aren’t going to fill empty seats and (2) that you cannot satisfy them. To the latter, you still seem to suffer under the impression that all they want is more diversity. But that’s just the first demand. Once they get that, they’ll be dictating how you teach the courses—they’ll only accept absolutized histories of the sort “studies” departments produce—and then they’ll demand that their people teach the course. After all, how can someone like you really understand the sufferings of Harlem? And shouldn’t someone who understands how evil the West is be teaching it? You think you’re saving your program, but you’re signing your own dismissal.

        And I think it’s reasonable, in a multicultural world, that we should offer Western Civ courses but also other Civ courses too.

        The formal side of humanistic education teaches you to read, write, think, and understand the world as is by looking at where it came from. If you’re lucky, you also get something for the soul in the bargain. How in the name of Zeus does “a multicultural world” have any bearing on these ends? It doesn’t. This and your concern about identity have everything to do with pandering to activists by validating their identities and caving in to the lazy mass of students with empty edutainment that’ll fill the seats.

        At any rate, I think the worst indictment I can offer is that after an undergraduate in the liberal arts and graduate studies in philosophy—with Greek and Latin to boot—I’m steering my own kids away from the humanities. Not because I’m no longer a believer. On the contrary, years of experience have reinforced my belief in humanistic education, and I’m doing all I can to instill it in my kids. But knowing what I know, I could not in good conscience send my kids to your program of…of what exactly? Expensive “cultural enrichment”?

        Make no mistake that enrolment is collapsing because knowledgeable parents are asking my question: Why would I tiger-dad my kids into and through the International Baccalaureate, and then turn around and send them to take a survey course on Harlem and Mexico taught by activists from studies departments who probably know less than my kids? It’s not just your program either. I can’t send them to my own alma matter. Nostalgia can’t make up for the changes that have taken place since I was there—the changes you’re proposing here.

        • @ X. Citoyen

          I think you are misapplying your views to what the author is actually saying. I don’t think the author is proposing paper-thin courses taught to semi-retards. Learning about pre-modernity and ancient “civilizations” besides being worthy in itself is an intellectually stimulating and demanding process. Note the emphasis on “civilization”.

          The impression I get of what the author is proposing is as follows: He wishes ‘General Humanities’ to be akin to Linguistics, where the science is taught using many languages and isn’t necessarily bound to the teaching of English Linguistics. Thereby, Classics would be a course that isn’t exclusively focused on European Civ but its scope is broader. And under his proposal, one would learn the best of ancient cultures. It goes without saying there are pros and cons to what he suggested, if understood correctly.

          I don’t get the impression he is suggesting anything of this kind:

          “and then turn around and send them to take a survey course on Harlem and Mexico taught by activists from studies departments”

          He is most definitely not proposing dissecting pop culture.

          “The formal side of humanistic education teaches you to read, write, think, and understand the world as is by looking at where it came from.”

          Then why do you have problems with what the points article is trying to make?

          • X. Citoyen says


            What he intends doesn’t matter. The more he cuts to make room for other material the thinner the content becomes. Pretty soon you’ve got nothing but superficial, potted summaries that are memorized and regurgitated—no time for reading original texts. As for the non-Western modules, who do you think the activists will allow to teach them? If you think they’ll be disinterested scholars, you are sorely mistaken.

            Linguistics is a good analogy for what happens when you have comparative history crammed into a short time period (so thanks for that), though not quite as you describe. Think of substituting learning languages—Latin, Greek, German, Spanish—for a theoretical framework about languages. When you do comparative history at the first-year level, the only thing that sticks is the framework for the comparison, not the things compared. The kids won’t come out with any knowledge of the people they’ve studied. They’ll have unreflective judgements based on the wishy-washy categories that were used in the comparison.

            Then why do you have problems with what the points article is trying to make?

            Because there’ll be nothing left but edutainment that can be gotten for free on Youtube and Wikipedia. Humanistic education requires careful, deep reading followed by thoughtful writing and open discussion. There’s no other way to get what the humanities provide.

  7. Farris says

    “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t….”

    Roger Scruton

    • I agree with Scruton that thorough-going relativism makes no sense. After all, if all truth is relative, why should anyone else believe the relativist? I think even Scruton would agree, however, that though not everything is relative, some things are. That’s something anyone who’s travelled to a different country knows: in some countries they prefer to spend their time watching hockey; in others, football or rugby. I think culture is the sphere is which relativistic claims are at their strongest, where, as Herodotus said (quoting Pindar) ‘custom is king.’ And, though some scientific claims are true and others false (and universities should teach the true claims), in the humanities things aren’t so simple. There are different cultural traditions, and it isn’t quite clear to me that Vergil is superior to Rumi in anything like the sense that Galileo’s theories are superior to those of Claudius Ptolemy. That suggests that we can offer people the choice of studying a couple of poetic and artistic traditions rather than just one. (And I think Western Civ should certainly be on the menu.)

  8. Jim Gorman says

    At first read, I thought this sounded reasonable. However upon reflection in just doesn’t sound like a good idea. If you’re offering a course in civilization over a semester, you could barely cover one complicated civilization, let alone try to cover two or three and comparisons between them. If the institution is receiving pressure from the SJW crowd, then by all means, develop separate courses for the more complicated civilizations and let the students choose. Dumbing down classes just to have some diversity is stupid!

    • I know where you’re coming from, but, of course, every course is to a some extent (a very great extent, actually) a condensation or schematization of a great mass of historical material. If it wasn’t, you’d have to re-play the whole of classical history, and that would take a lot of time, leaving no opportunity for Italian or squash. When I studied Greek history at college, we focused very intensively on the fifth and fourth centuries BC. When I started teaching I taught an introduction to the whole of Greek Civ in a term. Now I teach a joint course on Greek and Roman Civ in the same time period. How? Well, of course, you simply become more general and more selective in your approach. The courses I teach now are obviously very different from more intensive ones (we do teach more intensive courses focused on individual texts too, mind). But I’m not sure if I would call it a dumbing down, because there’s not necessarily any reduction in the amount of information you take in as a student. I memorized dates to do with the Peloponnesian War; I ask my students to get a grasp of dates and names relevant to the whole of Greek history, from the Bronze Age to the Roman takeover of Ptolemaic Egypt (with less detailed attention to the fifth century). And I think they come away with something useful, a sense of the overall structure of Greek history. I think world history and Global Civ courses can do something similar.

  9. E. Olson says

    I don’t understand why the discussion and study of Western Classics should focus so much on Greece and Italy, yes there were some good Italian (spaghetti) Westerns in the 60s, but such studies would be missing many great works if they don’t include Stagecoach, Winchester 76, Shane, High Noon, the Searchers, Magnificent 7, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the Wild Bunch among other very excellent horse operas.

    • Tom Mix, Western Classicist says

      If you leave out Bronco Billy Anderson’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), John Ford’s 1924 ‘The Iron Horse’, William S. Hart’s oeuvre (esp. ‘Tumbleweeds’ 1925) and the entire era of silent film then you are presenting a flawed, partial, totally superficial vision of Western classics that makes it impossible to appreciate the gags in Buster Keaton’s underrated ‘Go West’ (1925), never mind that Mack Sennett one from the 1920s with the guy with the crossed eyes who gets into a gunfight and shoots half of someone’s moustache off. The least funny comedy ever made. A powerful experience to watch it in total silence.

      • Certainly, any decent overview of the Western Classics should include ‘Blazing Saddles’ alongside Aristophanes. But you’ve grasped the essential point of this series, which is to point out that John Ford and Sergio Leone movies might have their moral problems, but they also have their moral lessons – and something very similar could be said about the productions of Jackie Chan and John Woo.

  10. JonFrum says

    We need to study Western culture because it’s OUR culture. We speak a Western language, and the ideas and events that most affect ALL of our lives are from within the Western world. African Americans are Westerners, as are Asian Americans. No one can study everything – time limits effort. Every excursion into Chinese philosophy subtracts from our knowledge of ourselves. SOME people should certainly learn about other cultures, but only AFTER studying their own.

    • Stephanie says

      Amazing that it never occurs to these students that if they want to focus on classics from another civilization, they should go to a university in the relevant part of the world. Not only is there no interest in doing so, the flood of international students tripping over each other to pay exhorbant tuition rates should indicate that western civilization has produced something demonstrably superior, and chipping away at the foundation of that is a mistake.

      By all means, have separate, elective courses that tackle the history of thought in other cultures, because the comparison is informative, but don’t incorporate them in such a way that draws a false equivalency just to appease the mob.

      • Robert Paulson says

        Whenever you hear a demand that something be more “inclusive”, its a trojan horse to destroy whatever it is through redefinition. The demands for “inclusion “are always followed by demands to change whatever its defining features are in such a way as to fundamentally redefine it out of existence.

        There is only finite room in the curriculum, so “including” the studies of other cultures necessitates the replacement of parts of the Western curriculum. Soon, enough of it will be replaced the curriculum designers will simply start calling it “global studies” or whatever – a deracinated, soulless and shallow goo designed to more to appease the egos of various victim groups than to provide students with an education.

        The end game is the destruction of our culture and of our civilization, but instead of announcing their intentions to do so like men, they hide behind soft, weak and therapeutic jargon of “inclusion”, “diversity” and “inter-disciplinary exchange”.

        • Jon, I think the view ‘let’s study Western Civ because it’s our culture’ is fine to some extent. Some will feel that way, and they should certainly have the opportunity to study Western Civ for that reason if they want to. At the same time, though some Chinese Canadians, for example, will identify primarily as Westerners, and want to do Western Civ for cultural reasons, others will identify more strongly as Chinese, and might want to study Chinese Civ for similar reasons. (Some, of course, will feel both Canadian and Chinese, and might want to take a course in Western Civ and a course in Chinese Civ.) It’s true that nobody can study everything, but I think at least offering Western Civ and a couple of other Civ papers is possible, and some students at least will find time for both if they feel they want to do that. I’m not sure ‘every incursion into Chinese philosophy subtracts from knowledge of ourselves’ – in fact, I think studying other cultures is often one of the best ways of understanding more about our own. It’s like travelling to another country – it puts the customs you took as simply natural in your country into sharper relief. Finally, I think it’s reasonable to study a bit of Western Civ and a bit of other Civs at Western universities – whether people do the former in their first year and the latter later, or whether they do a bit of both all the way through uni – those are practical questions best left to individuals finding their way through their university careers.

          • Stephanie, I think if you are really dedicated to understanding Chinese culture, say, going to study Chinese literature in China would be the best thing. At the same time, I think it’s a good idea to have courses in other cultures offered in Western universities, so that people who aren’t able to go abroad, or who would prefer not to, can learn something about these cultures too.

            In your second sentence, if you’re arguing that non-Western students are coming in great numbers to our universities because they want to study Western culture, I’m not sure that’s true (how many study culture rather than engineering and similar subjects?) If you’re arguing that they are coming here because our universities are better because our culture is better, that may be true (certainly, our emphasis on free enquiry has done a lot of good intellectually); though it may be that our universities are better simply because Western countries tend to be better developed at the moment. In any case, note that I’m not chipping away at Western culture – in fact, I’m defending the idea that it is a worthy object of study against the criticisms of some of my colleagues and friends. But I also think it can survive being studied alongside other cultures.

            I don’t see why studying Chinese and Western history alongside one another would ‘draw a false equivalency.’ The ideal in my mind would be to teach the basic facts and texts of each culture, and reserve most of the evaluative judgments to the students – as well as the question of the extent to which evaluative judgment of cultures is even appropriate. (I think it can be, but the question is by no means a simple one.)

          • Robert, I don’t think making an institution more inclusive necessarily changes or destroys its essence. A lot hangs on what you take the essence of a given institution to be, and I can imagine cases in which a certain exclusiveness might be central to a group’s identity. For example, if MENSA started being open to people with ordinary IQs, that would change its nature. But there seem to me to be many cases which don’t fit that description. Imagine a cricket club, for example, once exclusively male, that then opens its doors to ladies, but continues to be concerned with cricket. Now, you could argue that the essence of the club had been to be an all-male cricket club, but that would be strange, since its primary concern was clearly cricket, not to be an all-male club. If you made that move, then you could conclude that you could never reform any institution without destroying it – but that result would come merely from an insistent reading in of exclusivity into the purpose of every group you looked at, and wouldn’t tell you anything useful about the nature of institutional reform.

            It may be that the end game of those who criticize the notion of Western Civ is the total destruction of our culture, as you say, but I remain to be convinced. What is your evidence for that belief?

    • “African Americans are Westerners”

      I wonder if they believe that at the upside down ziggurat on the Washington DC mall called The African-American Museum of Art and Culture.

  11. S Cole says

    Tony Abbot complains that The Ramsay Centre “is not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”:
    Right, so how about Australia’s Confucius Institutes, or ANU’s Centre for Arab and Language Studies-funded in part by Middle Eastern governments? I’m sure China, Turkey, Dubai and Iran couldn’t possibly have any bias or agenda.
    What’s next? “We couldn’t allow this course/professor because it/he is not merely about physics, but is in favour of it.”

    • I think if you read Abbott’s original piece in Quadrant it’s pretty clear that he’s not complaining about that aspect of the Ramsay Centre – he’s in favour of it. He has a right to his opinion, but, personally, that’s one of the reservations I have about the Ramsay Centre. I support objective enquiry into Western Civ, not biased enquiry, either of a positive or negative type.

      I think there are indeed many questions we might ask about the role of Confucius Institutes in our universities – that is, the closeness they appear to have with the Chinese state and its ideology. (Absent this, I am all for more teaching of Chinese culture in our universities, especially ancient Chinese culture, which is enormously interesting, and a huge piece in the puzzle of early civilizations.)

      But if some courses in Chinese history are biased, I don’t think the right answer to that would be ‘Let’s make our courses biased too.’ I think a better response would be to try to make the Chinese courses more neutral, and make sure that the courses in Western Civ are neutral too.

      The physics analogy is an interesting one, but I’m not sure how close it is. I mean, I do find it hard to imagine how you could teach physics without being a proponent of the methods of physics (rather than say, Theology). But I think things are a bit different in the Humanities. There, you can teach students to understand a historical period or a work of art without necessarily telling them to like or dislike it. Indeed, I think that’s actually the most appropriate course of action.

  12. Constantin says

    Milquetoast, self-interested plea that the author’s subject is still relevant – but of course along other. The death of a civilization is clinically complete once civilizational pride has been crucified and replaced with a mere example among equal many. Must be exceedingly exciting to teach over a corpse with the knife you stuck in its back sticking out for all to see and admire. My point is not to say that the object of the course must be the inculcation of cultural supremacy, but when your effort to be politically correct erases all trace of personal excitement for your own subject, the only reason to sign up will be to get credits. This article left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. When you are tentative in setting up and explaining the foundation of everything that surrounds you (assuming you do not live among pre-contact tribes in the deep Amazonian Jungle). There is no “implicit claim of universality” when a culture examines its own roots at home (if it still has a home and a body). It would be indeed a different thing if you taught and demanded Greek and Latin in Beijing. But the reality of the absurd relativism of the enemies of the Western Civilization is that they reject it at home, while countries such as Korea, India and China soak it up as fast as they can. Watch Sumi Jo singing opera in Italian, French and German, while the indoctrinated youth at Reed College are horrified that an introductory course in humanities is “too Western”. Have you asked yourself, professor, this question: how would they know? What terms of comparison, what life experience, what alleged suffering or educational error they can actually point to, to support this laughable proposition? What criteria they will have then to chose between Shintoism, Sufism and the books of the Inuit in the Canadian High Arctic. What relative proportions will please everyone? Sadly, you came across as practically begging to still have a seat at a crowded table managed by the ideological whims of children. Bravo! 🙁

    • Stephanie says

      “Sadly, you came across as practically begging to still have a seat at a crowded table managed by the ideological whims of children. Bravo!”

      Perfect description.

    • I don’t think the views I express here have made me less excited for my subject. In fact, I find comparative ancient history extremely interesting, and I enjoy telling my students about Gandharan culture every year (and they seem to enjoy it too). I’m not sure there’s a strong relationship between the excitement teachers show and their ideas about where classics is going. I have a lot of friends who are on the progressive and post-modern left, and they still seem to be excellent, engaging teachers.

      I’m not sure the right approach to ideas is to ask first ‘What would this person know?’ I think it’s better simply to examine claims on their face, and see if they seem to you to hold up. In the case of the Reed College students, their claim that a course that presented itself as universal (as a general intro to the humanities) was too Western seemed fair to me. I disagreed with some other claims they made, such as that the curriculum was racist or white supremacist.

      I hope I’m not managed by the whims of others, but I do think it is good to listen to others’ views and to consider them in a reasonable manner – and to say so when you agree with them, even (or especially) if you disagree with them on much else.

  13. Constantin says

    I must add: the future of who’s past is the concern claimed in the title? Who is “our” that have a non-universal past and some kind of personal future? How about this suggestion for a title: “The decline from a glorious past to no future via a thousand cuts including a quick foray into the glorious contribution to humanities by the last surviving cannibals of Papua New Guinea”? I guarantee professor Kierstead that it will attract more students…

    • I think I meant ‘our’ as in humanity’s ancient past (since what I say about more collaboration in ancient world history has a bearing on the ancient past of all of us), but it’s a fair question.

  14. The very idea of studying other cultures and civilizations in a formal way is very much a Western idea. So is the idea that other cultures and civilizations can be treated like condiments in a buffet line.

    It’s not at all clear that the author has any understanding of the value of studying, say, Hafiz the way Melville did or the value of studying the Upanishads the way Schopenhauer did . . .

    • I enjoy all of those authors/texts you mentioned, though I don’t know of the specific studies you’re talking about. But is that kind of thing unique to the West? Remember that in more recent times, Western scholars got a bit of a head-start on that kind of research into foreign countries because of the spread of Europeans to other parts of the globe in the early modern period. But if you go back to classical Baghdad (for example), I think you can find examples of non-Westerners studying other civilizations in a formal way (and in the case of Baghdad, that happened to include the Greeks).

      • James, Thanks for your response.

        You are certainly right that all kinds of civilizations studied ideas from other civilizations – they seemed to have absorbed and made them their own. But it seems the emergence of the notion of pure objective inquiry and academic specialization in 19th century Europe represents a qualitative shift unique to the West. This is epitomized by the rise of modern science. But not just science -for example, the same German word, “wissenschaft”, covers not only science but scholarship in general. This way of thinking and the kind of knowledge it produces shapes and dominates modern society.

        My concern then isn’t whether or not other civilizations are taught but the nature of how they are taught (and, if I may be so presumptuous, I think this is what concerns a number of other commentators of your article). It seems to me a civilization is a manifestation of more or less coherent human states of mind adapted to the world in which they find themselves. Even long dead civilizations can be understood to be alive insofar as we today can understand ourselves as so adapted to our age. Thus we can be provoked by their ideas or their courage or their cleverness . . . and we can gain some humility of the limited nature of human thinking. As far as I’m concerned, Aeshlylus, Lao tzu, the Popul Vuh etc etc live.

        In other words, we can actually discover meaning in learning about other civilizations. This was what I was getting at by evoking Melville and Schopenhauer – they transformed and absorbed ideas from other civilizations and made them their own.

        To study anything as an object or a thing outside of ourselves or “for its own sake” is the very definition of meaninglessness. It’s not a coincidence that postmodern skepticism, as examplified by likes of Appiah, arises in the same civilization which celebrates dispassionate inquiry. Follow dispassionate inquiry far enough, be skeptical about everything, and you end up with nothing . . or more precisely, nothingness.

        So, I think every student has a right to ask the question students have always asked: Why do I need to know this shit?

  15. Saw file says

    Taking into account that this article is the first of four, after my first reading left me confused (as to the author’s point), I reread it twice more and I am now utterly confused.
    Is the author trying to say that if I choose to take primary courses on Western (Mediterranean) civilization/history, I should have included in the course studies civilizations/cultures from separate regions and time period’s? Assuming he doesn’t mean those nearby regional civilizations/cultures that effected and/or influenced Western (Mediterranean) civilization/history, then what would be the point? It I had a further interest in connections to it and say, the Spanish colonialism in southern North America, or a Afro-American ghetto in NYC, wouldn’t I simply take a more ‘advanced’ course on that topic? And Polynesia and Islam? Wouldn’t any connections to any of these solely be from the Western civilization/history direction?
    Is it just me, or is the author seemingly advancing the premise that they (Western civilian/history courses) are being taught in the same way with the same course materials and attitudes as they have been since, ” Most of these courses came into being at a time when exposure to non-Western languages and cultures was simply much harder to come by than it is today”? A great deal more has been added to this field of study since then, so I know that that is untrue.
    Maybe this is all simply about a name change, for some ( 😉 ) reason?
    Or possibly it is about creating a additional new category in the Humanities field, to create more tenured positions? After all, it has previously been a successful ploy, to create other additional categories ( 😉 ) of tenured positions within the Humanities field.
    I could easily point to this article to show why so many areas within the Humanities field’s are self-imploding, but it would be only fair to reserve judgement until the series is concluded.
    I’m really not trying to be a ass here. Well, no wholly anyways. ( couldn’t resist the pun)
    I really do not understand the point that the author is attempting to make. Possibly I am not versed enough in scholar-ize?
    Maybe some of my Quillette kith can enlighten me with their own interpretations?

    • Saw file says

      But then, maybe I am just an atypical dullard who only understands hearty soups that are built off of certain solid stocks, and can’t properly appreciate complicated consumes because I never got around to ‘understanding’ the herbal and spice nuances of mildly flavored hot water?

      • I’m sorry if you found it unclear (something which, as the person who wrote it, I might have to take some responsibility for…) I think one issue is that I’ve written it mainly with colleagues in mind, many of whom think we shouldn’t be teaching Western Civ at all because it’s too closed-minded. My argument here is that we should certainly engage with the histories of other parts of the world (and universities should teach them), but that it’s also alright to continue teaching Western Civ.

        My point about courses being designed before that many non-Western texts had been translated applied more to courses like Literae Humaniores at Oxford, which billed itself as a general introduction to the humanities (or, at least, to the best literature that had been written), but which focused exclusively on the Western classics. Nowadays, in our more globalized world, I think it makes sense either to re-describe courses like that as ‘Western classics’ or ‘Greco-Roman Civ,’ or, if you want to keep a course with a more general title, to make its content more general.

  16. Charlie says

    It is wrong to consider that a deep knowledge of Latin, Greek and classical knowledge prevents one from earning about other cultures. In fact it is the training in Latin and Greek which enables rapid learning of other languages as demonstrated by those Britons who became fluent in non European languages and cultures- Doughty, Burton, G Palgrave, Bell, F Stark, G Orwell, Lawrence, R Burton, the officers of the East India Company and ICS. It is odd that the great Arabic scholars respected Greek scholarship and many progressive people do not.

    It is learning Latin and Greek which is important as they train the mind. It is said one needs to learn languages before puberty in order to become fluent. Bright children can learn Latin from the age of 7 to 8 years and Greek from the age of 9-10 years. As Greek is of the Indo Aryan family of languages, those who knew this language can rapidly learn others, from Celtic to Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, etc, etc. It would appear that the Indo- Aryan languages appeared 3500 years ago when light coloured people from the Steppes into N India and Europe. It was in the 18th century that Britons with a knowledge of Greek appreciated Sanskrit was related, for example the words Mother , Father and water are very similar and therefore increased our knowledge of how cultures were actually connected. R Graves from his classical studies believes that the roots of poetic myth can be traced back to 1500 BC when Sanskrit appeared .
    The training in Greek also enabled people to learn the Dravidian languages such as Tamil and oriental ones such as Chinese, Japanese, etc. R Burton who needed Greek to matriculate to Oxford was fluent in at least 12 Indian languages and could pass himself off as an Indian.

    It is only when one has through knowledge of one’s own culture can one appreciate the differences and similarities with others. When the Jesuits arrived in China , Mandarins respected their scholarship, which would have included being fluent in Latin and Greek and insisted they wore robes of scholars; whereas they treated other missionaries with contempt for their lack of learning.

    Knowledge of the classics covers languages, history, an insight into human nature and what it is to be human, philosophy, drama, technology, trade, pottery, coins, military and naval warfare, politics, democracy, maths, science , etc, etc. By understanding how the Greeks defined themselves and in opposition to Asians , it sheds light on different cultures. The absolute tyranny of Xerxes compared with the belief in individualism and love of competition of the Greeks. Unless one appreciates the importance of competition to the Greeks( the Olympics were founded in 776 BC ) it is difficult to appreciate how different are Confucius’s views were in which he say ” Gentlemen do not compete”. The acceptance of the naked body by Greeks and Romans is very different to the Semitic people where it is largely clothed and as consequence a Rabbi banned Jewish people form competing in the Olympics. The difference in culture between the Greeks, Romans and Semitic peoples caused much of the conflict. One aspect which the Greeks found distasteful was the way Asiatics prostrated themselves before rulers ( a cause of conflicts in Alexander’s army) and their love of luxury.
    Greek was compulsory for Oxford until 1920 and Latin until 1960. The reality is that post 1918, universities in the UK were largely bankrupt and needed funds from government and they were happy to lower standards to survive and attract more undergraduates. The reason why the PPE degree was instigated was because many grammar schools did not have the ability to teach Greek. In the 19th century , statesmen such as Peel and Gladstone had double first in Greats and Maths and were far better educated than anyone with a PPE degree. As C Northcote Parkinson has stated, the average 19th century Don would have degrees in classics and maths and speak 3 to 4 European languages. Obtaining degrees in Greats and Maths is far more of a scholastic challenge than reading PPE.

    Those who criticise the learning of Latin and Greek are largely those incapable of learning them but wish to be considered scholars.

    • Doctor Locketopus says

      > Arabic

      I’m going to have to pick a nit here. Arabic is a Semitic language, which belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, not the Indo-European one.

      • Charlie says

        Thank you for your correction. I should have stated more clearly, that it is the academic training in Latin and Greek which enables those to learn Arabic more easily.

    • “It is only when one has thorough knowledge of one’s own culture that one can appreciate the differences and similarities of others.”

      Charlie, good argument – what you articulate about the evolution and transformations of language holds more generally for the evolution and transformation of human consciousness in relation to different physical and social environments. A human civilization is a manifestation of a more or less coherent adaptation over a period of time.

      One problem today is this belief that a culture or a whole civilization represents a “life style choice”. This mentality reflects a kind of human most perfectly adapted to a consumer reality and rendered incapable of actually thinking.

      • Charlie says

        CA,Thank you. I shall use your phrase to describe civilisation as I think it is very precise and concise.

        “A human civilization is a manifestation of a more or less coherent adaptation over a period of time.”

        • Charlie -To add to your thought – I don’t see how young people who have no understanding of or curiosity about their own history and civilization can begin to have an understanding of another civilization. Teaching the “classics” would be, as it apparently has become, one more exercise in narcissism and ritual displays of self loathing (such displays are in fact the new chauvinism of our current imperial powers).

          By the way, I love Richard Burton – why is he not better known?

    • I agree that there’s good evidence that learning languages young can give you a greater facility for languages later on. Note, however, that though this works as an argument to study Latin and Greek, it doesn’t just apply to Latin and Greek, but to other languages as well. Still, it may be that learning these two particularly complex inflected languages gives you an extra boost in terms of language-learning later on in life. It’s definitely true that they help with related languages in the Indo-European family tree (and that Latin can make learning Romance languages pretty painless).

      I’m not sure if I long for the days when Britain’s elite was educated almost wholly in ancient languages. I think it makes more sense for me to have MPs who know about Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Though I do think some people who can bring something different to the table should always be welcome in every walk of life. And I think for students who have more of an interest in history, literature, art, and so on, Classics can often serve as a way of getting the whole of the humanities in one coherent serving.

      You put forward some interesting theories about differences between Western and Confucian culture. I think that’s great. This is the kind of thing I’m all for – people developing their own ideas about world culture, based on some knowledge of its key texts and figures. That’s why I think there should be more Civ courses, of all types (and including Western Civ) at our universities.

  17. Alexandru says

    The purpose of an education is to teach the pupil about himself and others. Primarily about himself. We study Western Civilization because we are living Western Civilization. Even foreigners are among us because of WCiv. Our language, our culture, our laws, and our customs, are products of WCiv. The study of African or Chinese culture, while interesting, isn’t pertinent to our way of life.

    • Robert Paulson says

      “Our way” and “Western Civilization” are just racist white nationalist dog whistles for their racism and xenophobia. Having a culture of “ones own” is inherent racist, because it means excluding those that are not part of your culture and according to my kindergarten teacher, excluding people is bad. We need to be inclusive, which is good.

      Over time as we become more inclusive, “our way of life” will be the Chinese and African way of life, which is good. Africans and Chinese are inclusive because they are diverse. To be any other way would be exclusive, which is bad.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        > “Our way” and “Western Civilization” are just racist white nationalist dog whistles for their racism and xenophobia.

        Patent nonsense. Everything that separates you from an illiterate serf starvining in a hovel was invented by Western Civilization. Modern agriculture. Modern science, technology, and medicine. Democracy. The destruction of slavery. Women’s rights. The idea that anyone at all outside of a privileged elite should have rights. The university. Modern economics (even the evil pseudo-economic religious cult called Marxism, to which you likely belong). The very computer network you’re excreting your blather on, and the language that you’re sullying by excreting it.

        All Western Civilization, dude.

        One can recognize that these things are vastly more important to modern society than the history of Polynesia without being “racist” or “xenophobic” toward Polynesians (or whoever).

        • Doctor Locketopus says

          After reading some of your other comments, I suspect you were being sarcastic above. If so, I apologize. Unfortunately there are too many people who take those positions seriously, and it’s sometimes hard to tell reality from parody (which in itself is a demonstration of just how far around the bend these people have gone).

          Poe’s Law is a thing.

        • Modern science would be largely impossible without the foundation of maths based on Arabic numerals, the concept of zero, and algebra, none of them Western inventions. And gunpowder, arguably the most significant and world-changing invention in the period between the inventions of the wheel and heavier-than-air flight isn’t one either. Give credit where it’s due.

      • Charlie says

        You knowledge of African conflicts is inadequate. Africa is beset by tribalism- Xhosa vs Zulu; Ndbele vs Shona; L’O vs Kiku, Tutsu vs Hutsi; conflict between farmers and herders, Muslims vs Christians. Have’t you heard of the Nguni migrations which led to mass slaughter, only stopped by Shaka?

        China has many races and languages.

    • Doctor Locketopus says

      Note that China has become a successful nation only because it has adopted Western science and technology (and economics… the Chinese are basically claiming to be Marxist just to save face at this point), along with numerous other tropes of Western Civilization. Note that the Chinese leaders wear suits and ties, not traditional Mandarin garb.

      Sadly, they have not yet seen fit (or been forced to) adopt Western ideas about civil rights, but perhaps that will change at some point.

      Western Civilization: it works, bitches.

      • “Sadly, they have not yet seen fit (or been forced to) adopt Western ideas about civil rights,”

        So you force people to except something called civil rights? How magnanimous of you. I’m sure all of us peons are very grateful for you having our best interests at heart.

        • Dr. Locketopus, I think you’re right that China has recently greatly profited from some ideas that originated in the West, but the example is more complicated than it may seem, since if economic liberalism was a Western idea, then so was Marxism…

          I don’t have a theoretical problem with saying ‘they should give people more freedom,’ though I do wonder whether trying to force them would be the right approach. You have to balance the good that would result with the harm any attempt at coercive action would cause (and I think it would be very large).

    • I think learning about your own culture makes good sense, but so does learning about other cultures. You often learn more about your own culture by having a look at others. When I did Religious Studies at school, they made us study Christianity and one other religion. I think it would be reasonable for Western universities to have students study an intro course to Western Civ and one other Civ of their choice. (And non-Western universities might do the opposite!)

  18. Saw file says

    Thx, Charlie..
    I wish I could have said all you did, with such few words.
    I will point out that, not being able to actually read the language’s has not prevented me from reading the Western classics. Both a ancient and modern.
    Some are a fkn grind, but most are quite enjoyable. I will never stop (55yoa).
    I will also point out though, that it is becoming much less common to find the ‘classically educated’ who are truly educated beyond the basics in the hard (STEM) sciences.
    I suppose that that is understandable, considering the explosion of advancements.
    Excellent comment.

    • Good for you Saw file. I’ve also had the experience of liking some classic works a lot more than others! I agree that there’s still too much of a divide between humanists and scientists, especially in Europe, where degrees are still fairly specialized. I think we should all be doing US-style undergraduate courses with lots of options and some requirements (e.g. at least one maths course, one science, one foreign language, 3 Ancient Greek classes, etc.)

  19. Robert Paulson says

    Whenever your hear something is about to be come “inclusive”, you know its about to be destroyed.

    • Although there seem to have been many institutions which were made more inclusive without being destroyed, e.g. Oxford and Cambridge (after letting in women), representative democracies (after female suffrage), various armies (after accepting openly gay people). All these institutions are still there, and haven’t been destroyed.

  20. Saw file says

    Thx, Robert Paulson (btw….good one. 😉 )
    I am awaiting the new CDN utopia, ala the current SA model.
    Maybe the awesome CCP model might replace it though?

  21. Stoic Realist says

    This article is a very good example of what Heterodox Academy is turning out to be as opposed to what it could and should have been. The organization needs to do some self reflection on what it is trying to accomplish and how to go about it.

    • Stoic Realist, I think Heterodox Academy is trying to defend the basic values that make good discussions possible: openness to alternative ideas, a focus on evidence and argument, an avoidance of ad hominem attacks. Its purpose isn’t to advocate for view of any particular sort.

  22. ccscientist says

    Our culture is suffused with ideas, words, and institutions that arose out of the classics tradition, from the sciences, to western concepts of the individual and justice to democracy itself. The idea that all cultures are equal is simply false but is also irrelevant because we live in a particular culture.

    • I don’t think you have to agree with the statement ‘all cultures are equal in every way’ to agree with the piece above. What I am interested in here is the education we offer people, and if people want to have discussions and ideas about which improvements came out of which cultures, it makes sense to facilitate that (and arguably improve those discussions and ideas) by guiding them through some of the major works of various different traditions (including the Western one).

  23. ccscientist says

    I have read some in chinese and Indian culture and from my western perspective find them impenetrable. To just throw it all in the blender and call it culture is to create green goo that cannot be swallowed.

    • But isn’t ‘culture’ exactly the kind of general term that’s required to describe all of these different things? I’ve also found it hard to read some of the non-Western classics I’ve looked at. But that may be an argument for more offerings of courses that help people read these texts. I also think Homer and Vergil can look very weird even to Westerners, so we should keep having courses that help students read those texts.

  24. I’ve mentioned before that the worst enemies of Western Culture are its most fierce proponents.

    This is because Western Culture is often treated as if it were some pure unbroken train of coherent thought, when it is a messy fragmented jumble of competing sources, more diverse than anyone usually admits.

    And it continues to evolve, adding and losing ideas continually. What we conceive of as “our” culture in 21st century America is very different than what someone in Elizabethan England would have thought was “their” culture.

    • Charlie says

      I doubt it. Elizabethan culture was dominated the following
      1. The Bible.
      2. Classics. After the War of the Roses there was a massive expansion of grammar schools and Oxbridge Colleges teaching the Classics.
      3. Parliament was continuing to become more powerful and there was massive increase in the power of the middle classes and those who had risen from wealthy farming stock/lower gentry rather than military powerful aristocracy .
      4. The Renaissance was in full swing.
      5. There was massive increase in knowledge due to printing and increased literacy. Protestantism encouraged everyone to read the Bible themselves. Consequently Protestantism was supported by the upwardly mobile classes and hence Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic.
      6. Drake was reducing the size of the World..
      7. F Bacon was beginning the idea of science developed by experiments and recorded results.
      8. The concepts that the birth right of the English was freedom: freedom to think, speak, write and act and that honest hard work should be rewarded were growing.
      9. Elizabethan England is the beginning of the Modern World.

      • Exactly.
        And the events you mentioned changed Western Culture forever.

        And tracing it backwards to the Greek and Roman sources, we see that they themselves were radically transformed by the import of Jewish thought embedded in the Christian sect.

        And the native Saxon, Briton, Gallic and Germanic cultures were mostly, but not entirely erased by the waves of first Roman then Christian cultures.

        The point is, Western Culture has never been a fixed and static thing. It has always been evolving and changing as it picks up new ideas and sheds old ones.

        We may quote Cicero, but he would find us and our culture entirely alien.

        • Charlie says

          Saxons came after Rome. See Monarchy Episode 1 by Dr D Starkey to explain why the Anglo Saxons were different to the post Roman Barbarians on the continent- absence of the idea of the King being divine; they were elected, the Witan and they drafted their own laws based on tribal custom and The Bible.

          • This is an interesting conversation that exemplifies two ideas that I think are both true to some extent: 1. there were a lot of different things going in the West; 2. it’s still a distinctive thing/cluster of traditions. How can both these things be true? Well, think about countries or ponds with little rivulets running between them. And read on to Part 2 of this series…

          • beyondyesandno says

            Which Anglo Saxon rulers are you referring to? Alfred the Great (871AD) to Edward the Confessor (1066AD) was largely a hereditary succession.

  25. “It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”

    “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

    Thank god I studied classics back in the glorious 90’s.

    • If the objection here is that I’m being too rational about this and things aren’t fun anymore, I think you might underestimate how boring the traditional classical education could sometimes be! I think some of that was necessary and still is (amo amas amat), but that comparative studies, for example, once sneered at, are very exciting. (Of course, de gustibus non disputandum, but that’s the way I feel.)

  26. Saw file says

    Drinking? Me too #…
    But seriously: ” the worst enemies of Western Culture are its most fierce proponents.”, is clearly apprentice! Apparent! #Apperent# drinking #notdrunkyet
    Agree #
    Sorry, drinking #…

    • Racism and xenophobia dehumanize others as a group, and history (especially recent history) has no shortage of examples that it is a very short step from regarding other groups as less than human to treating them as such, with horrific outcomes.

    • I think reasons include: they don’t reflect important realities about humans, demean people who are subjected to them (and arguably those who embrace them), and limit our capacities for the various kinds of cooperation that people tend to find useful and even joyful.

      • James, see my response to Jezza below. And my response to your response is, yeah, well, maybe. But a conversation on the merits of the question would certainly be better than the insanity we have now.

        Relations among human beings was taught to me in my childhood as something like, ‘be polite.’ Is that a good enough starting point? It is for me.

        As for the study of Western Civ – if we are going to study civilizations, we’d best begin with our own. Unapologetically.

  27. simon says

    The debate over humanities extends far beyond the sole corpus of “western classics”. In my opinion, what one calls “humanities” is equivocal in three different but complementary ways.

    There is indeed the vast corpus of foundational texts and artefacts wherever they come from. But one cannot reduce humanities to the study of such antiquities. Although humanities are preoccupied with conservation, one must recognize that there is an ongoing process of “classicization” aimed at incorporating an ever widening range of artifacts. In this vast set of objects, antics are important but they are a mere region of a more vast map which include modern classics, civilizations devoid of scriptures, contemporary subcultures or new media.

    What defines humanities is thus less a category of objects than the conceptual and methodological tools one may use in order to study them. The list of such tools is too long to be enumerated but it ranges from the more classical, such as textual archeology, linguistics, stylistics or epigraphy to the more contemporary ones, such as hermeneutics, structural analysis or ethnological empirical inquiry.
    The number of disciplines is also expanding. The West inherited disciplines from the Athenian academy and codified it into the scolastic quadrivium curriculum. Nevertheless, it kept growing since the beginning of the Renovation. If something as the DSM of humanities came to existence, there would be an increasing number of subfields in sociology, literary criticism, philosophy or history.

    So there’s no such things as an object of humanities confined to the foundational texts of western and other civilizations although they take a good part in it. More over, there is no such thing as a once and for all given sets of humanistic disciplines as it keeps growing in specializations.

    Upstream the selections of objects and the differeciation in disciplines, humanities are defined by a certain intellectual attitude rooted, in a way, in an existential one.
    In western culture, one can define at least two classical phases : first from the Greek Academy to the Scholastic Universities, then from botht Renovation and Reform to the mid-20th century.

    The first phase is characterized by the will to define the rules of good behavior (euzein) and a scrupulous effort toward self-reflection (noesis noeseos). This organic link between eupraxy and “eulogy” took the form of philosophical schools in Ancient Greece and European universities where the exercise of logical reason was inseparable from a certain kind of living, be it secular (stoicism’s mental exercises) or mystics-oriented (erudite monasticism). This attitude paved the way for political science and ethics on the one hand, pure science on the other.

    The second phase is characterized by a more empirical and cosmopolitan world-oriented approach. It started with the Renovation in Italy and culminated in the 19th and early 20th German university. In a way, Renovation and the cultural shifts that took place in its wake such as textual criticism and experimental science activated virtualites that already existed in Ancient Greece. It perfected rhetorics into the many fields of literary theory and history we now know and perfected the empirical drive that runned from the presocratic physicians to Aristotle’s naturalistic tropism into modern science.
    But in a more existential level, Renovation was built upon three pillars : the intrinsic value of studying past civilizations in order to honor their grandeur as well as for knowledge’s sake ; a more extraverted attitude toward non-European cultures that increased epistemic neutrality ; an empirical and critical attitude toward language that led to progress in textual analysis.

    This state of affairs was put into question during the late 19th and early 20th century in Germany, during the mid-20th in France. Broadly speaking, the heidegerrian notion of « Destruktion » became « déconstruction » in left-wing parisian nietzschean cicrcles before migrating to US campuses where it became what is now known as « French Theory » and the various declinations of « cultural studies ». Consequently, the way of producing knowledge in humanities radically changed. To put it simply : the unconscious postulatum made self-reflection impossible, empiricism was replaced with constructivism and formalism, epistemic cosmopolitanism was suspected with being ethnocentrist, traditional contemplative eupraxology was replaced by various political ideologies and action research while language was deemed a mere stylistic device.

    As a result of this new épistémè, humanities are now reduced to « exercices de style » in « déconstruction ». The average production in human science is now an eclectic essay of textualist social history aimed at destructing values, be it political or epistemic, because of their putative coercive nature. Humanities were built, on the more epistemic sense on self-reflection, distanciation from language and empirical inquiry ; but,in my opinion, these epistemic qualites were rooted in a more existential level. Humanities required a sense of cosmopolitanism toward past as well as contemporary foreign cultures, a contemplative state of mind and the desire to live in a good republic as a moral person. However, the traditional « tool box » in humanities (lexicology, stylistic analysis …) is being replaced by « strategies » such as « genealogies of biopower », « archeology of knowledge » or « symptomal readings » and empirical inquiry by interpretative arbitrariness. Values such as disinterestedness, cosmopolitanism and public good are deemed reactionary because knowledge is considered a praxis aimed at subverting social structures, interest in foreign cultures is now cultural appropriation and the public good a disregard to minority and counter-cultures.

    In such an épistémè, promoting western classics and inter-disciplinarity is not sufficient. If one wants to revive humanities in their classic sense as opposed to contemporary « sciences humaines », one has to lead a twofold struggle, namely the depolitization of knowledge and the remonetization of the classical humanistic set of instrument. In order to restore the ethical and existential grounds for humanism, one must get rid of the interminglings between radical politics and knowledge production in university. In order to restore the scientific value of classical instruments, one must reassert that the discourse of humanities belongs to a more rigorous truth regime than mere performative reading.
    The very question of the temporal and spatial extent of the corpus, be it classical, transmodern or radically contemporary, western, eastern or southern is accessory as well as the question of the topics at stake, be it sexuality or race. The value of a work in humanities should not be based on its ability to follow the latest trend in social critic : it should be based on its intrinsic scientific qualities. Yet, these qualities can be exerted on major and minor artefacts alike.

    Humanities don’t simply need to exhume and erect western classics as monuments : they need a new discourse on the method.

    • JamesW says

      Simon, have you adapted this from Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”?

      • Thanks Simon, that was interesting to read (though surely you mean ‘Renaissance’?) But I think there is some set of things that the humanities study: it’s a category with fuzzy boundaries, but includes literary and philosophical words, artistic artefacts, and so on. The productions of human culture, in other words. Now, my piece doesn’t address any of the methodological issues you raise. Whatever your view of methodology is, that’s fine with me (and I happen to agree with several of the things you said). But there still remains the question, ‘What do we study?’ My answer would be ‘the best that has been said and thought’ in the world (Matthew Arnold) – but I think we need to make sure we really are reading the best of the whole of world history, including but not exclusively from the West.

        • Simon says


          Thank you for your answer.

          I actually meant Renaissance. I’m French and I didn’t check the actual English word for it ! Which is actually a shame.

          To put it briefly, what I was trying to say, is that humanities are built around a core of quasi-hard science that has to be placed on the agenda again. The rest is literature.

          To the question “What do we study ?”, I’d answer “everything from Aristotle’s rhetorics, Aquina’s dispuationes, Vico’s treatises, Humboldt’s essays, Cassirer’s semiotics, Foucault’s way of mapping corpuses … that is of methodological value”.
          To the question “to what artifacts do we apply these methodological instruments ?”, I’d answer “it depends on the character and the taste of the researcher, the historical circumstance he wants to intervene on by putting it in a long-term or erudite perspective”.

          I’m kind of a repentant postmodernist. I wouldn’t give up the freedom postmodernism offered but I’m well aware that the great postmodernists were great classicists above all, that a deeply internalized classicism is the main condition of possibility of postmodern panache.

          I hope all of this makes sense !

          Best regards.

          (Ps : to JamesW, I meant “ironic”. I haven’t read Sokal’s pamphlets although I’ve heard about the controversy).

  28. TheSnark says

    This article is the most meal-mouthed, limp-wristed defense of the Western Great Books curriculum I have ever seen. There are at least two reasons that this should be the basis of all liberal education.

    First, as other commentators noted, it is the basis of our own civilization. Everything we do and think comes from the Western Civilization we were brought up in. How can you possibly understand another culture when you don’t even know your own? Even the justifications for not studying the Great Books — diversity, inclusiveness, fairness, etc — all come from Western thought. Those very concepts, as we understand them, are largely absent in other cultures.

    Secondly, on a more practical level, Western Culture has been of immense benefit to the world. Before the Enlightenment (which happened in the West) everyone in the world lived in rural squalor: average life expectancy of about 30 years, >50% child mortality, no civic rights, nothing. 99% of the human race were impoverished, ignorant peasants. And most of the remaining 1% were ignorant, brutal thugs crushing those peasant. As that’s they way it had been for thousands of years, and would be forever.

    Fast forward to today, and the condition of most of the world is immensely better. And this is solely due to the scientific and political advances that were begun during the Enlightenment. Yes, it began in fits and starts, and only include property-owning white males at first. But the inherent logic of the ideas slowly led to emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, and so on. And yes, we Westerners abused our advantages and treated others horribly at times, but on balance, the world is much better off from what the West has done.

    The Western Great Books trace the progress and development of that thinking from the ancients through modern times. That deserve close study.

    • I agree with much of what you say, though (as you’ll see if you stick around till Part 3) I’m not sure how a lot of the books that are on Great Books courses helped all that much with the advances you describe. (Did Pascal’s Pensées lead to factorization? Maybe Bacon helped with the Industrial Revolution, but did Tirso de Molina?)

      But I also think we need to take things back a step. Your views are interesting and well-supported. I’m generally in favour of people having interesting and well-informed things to say about world culture and history. How to support that? Well, one way is by offering them the ability to study Western culture as well as Chinese and other cultures. Then they can develop their own ideas – perhaps different to yours, perhaps very similar.

  29. Michael Lind proposed a way at NPQ back in 2000! –

    “An educated person would be expected to be well versed in both natural science and the humanities. But individuals in positions of public authority should receive humanistic educations; they should not be specialists in science or technology. Great political questions of the sort that both the orator-legislator and the mandarin-bureaucrat must decide are never technical questions, even when they have technical elements. They call for exercises of practical reason on the part of erudite individuals whose limited personal experience has been broadened by a knowledge of history and other societies—in other words, by the collective experience of the human race.

    All humanist traditions emphasize careful, although not mindless, study of literary and historical classics (as opposed to religious scriptures). Most, though not all, of the classics of the new global humanism would be selected from the Hellenic and Sino-Asian traditions. The histories of Greece and Rome by Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus and Gibbon would be joined by Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) and Zuo Qiu-ming’s Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals; in the area of foreign policy, Machiavelli would share honors with the Chinese classic, Intrigues of the Warring States. Educated people would be expected to know Horace and Du Fu, to learn the moral maxims of Confucius and Seneca, of Montaigne and Hsuntze.

    Even in a world of widely diffused higher learning, erudite global humanists would remain a civilizing minority in societies the majority of whose members are narcotized by a crude, sensationalistic mass media culture which may take forms undreamed of today. From both the Ciceronian and Confucian traditions, the humanists of the third millennium will learn that it is the duty of the educated individual to seek out public service, even at great risk to their reputations, their freedom and even their lives, rather than to choose the safety and otium or ease of retirement. Like the Western and Eastern humanism of the past, the global humanism of the future will emphasize practical wisdom in the service, not of private curiosity, but of the public good.”

    • Song For the Deaf says

      And Michael Lind expects college students to pick up the Greek historians, plus Gibbon and Montaigne, plus the Confucian classics, while studying their majors, in a semester or two?

      Something tells me Michael Lind was just showing off all the big names he’s read.

      • Thanks Luke – I’m not sure I agree with all of that, but I know the idea of people having some grounding in a range of different traditions has been floated before. I think it’s one we should embrace. We’re actually in a fortunate position compared to a lot of the people who lived on our planet in the past – we can go read a Chinese classic one day (in translation, in my case!) and a Greek one the next.

        Song For the Deaf, there are practical issues about how to organize these things, but of course students study a range of topics already, and we make that work.

      • Charlie says

        James Kierstead. All members of the Indian Civil Service and Army had to be fluent in at least 4 languages, some like Burton spoke 12. Those who were dark haired and brown eyed could pass themselves off as Indian. Burton used to hire shops in the Bazaar and chat with merchants and could himself off as an Indian. Due to Alexander many NW Indians are pale skinned and had blue or green eyes. Many ICS/Army officers passed themselves off as Indians and travelled up into Central Asia to assess the advance of the Russians- The Great Game.
        By 1947, there were members of the ICS/Army whose families had been in Middle East/India since the early 1700s.

        The legend of Alexander extended to Malaysia. Sekander is an Indian version of Alexander. Hellenistic culture merged with Buddhism in pre Islam Afghanistan – Sogdiana and Bactria.

        However, The EIC curriculum is only possible if people start Latin at the age of 7-8 years and Greek at 8- 9 years. Also hours were long, testing rigorous and if one was not studying one was playing sport . Modern day life of spending hours on social media and video games does not produce well educated and physically fit young adults. One cannot hope to dance with Bolshoi if one does not start training at the age of 4-5 years, mid teens is too late.

  30. augustine says

    The author suggests that his field is particularly susceptible to relativism, which is no doubt true. But why not stand up to that problem more directly instead of citing “multiculturalism” as an excuse for navigating new and varied terrain?

    Also underpinning his rather weak argument is an appeal to market forces. Again, this view is an unprincipled, adaptive one instead of a firm answer to the ineluctable forces of change that swirl around us. Forgive the crude analogy, but it is like the magazine vendor who decides he must start selling smut in order to survive. Degradation is never the only alternative.

    I appreciate the fact that any instructor faces enormous administrative and real world challenges that influence or even determine his options. Yet in the overall equation it is individual teachers, just like art curators, who are in a unique and superior position to decide what is best and most appropriate for their audience. If you appeal to outsiders to influence the curriculum or exhibition themes you are worse than useless. Isn’t that learned wisdom what they pay you for, and why you chose your career path?

    • I guess I chose my career path for a similar mix of reasons many people do, but finding the meeting place between what I wanted to do and what others might find useful in me was an important consideration. And I think that any line of work necessarily involves getting some sense of your audience’s preferences (even if everyone also has standards about what they’re willing to sell). But I’m comfortable with the position I’ve taken here: that we should keep on studying Western classics, but also be open to other traditions. Of course we should continue to be responsive to demand to some extent.

    • Sure. But let us see you naming a few… of these classical works… that you have supposedly read.

      • OK, but wouldn’t you want others to have the time to make up their own minds about these works? The Mahabharata and the Koran must be two of the most-read books in human history, alongside Homer and the Bible. I think it makes sense to guide students through portions of at least a few of these.

  31. Song For the Deaf says

    No offense, but this is the most retarded article I’ve seen on Quillette. Being “multi-cultural” doesn’t mean we have to start teaching every civilization in the world (unless you’re a western civ instructor worried that enrollment in your classes is dropping, or a university administrator looking to bring in more money by laying down more requirements). If anything, we should be force-feeding all of our multi-cultural our western civ. Why do you think the people of the West should have to change ourselves to accommodate our immigrants? Do people in Asian or Muslim countries do that?
    Of course we want to teach western people Western Civ (not that most of them care). Doing so orients them for an approach to other civilizations, assuming they’re interested in looking into Chinese or Islamic civilization. Or at least it would if the rest of the liberal arts curriculum wasn’t devoted to subverting the tradition as the product of increasingly hated white males.
    And I’m not even saying all of this as someone who thinks western civ is greater than the rest. I’ve read enough of the Great Books and a smattering of Chinese, Hindu and Muslim books to know that isn’t true. But you have to start somewhere, and why start with foreign civilizations rather than your own? You say we live in a multicultural society. Does that mean we live in a Muslim-Hindu-Christian-Confucian-Buddhist-Pagan-Secular society? Of course not. So why try to teach all of those things as “Global Civ”? Insecurity about your relevance?

    I would expect Chinese and Muslim students to be interested in studying western civ as a counterpoint to their own civilizations and see no reason why they would want to pay good tuition money for college classes that would only teach them what they already know.

    Would you expect Chinese Civ teachers in China to want to teach “Global Civ” to their students rather than Chinese Civ? Do they? Would you expect liberal arts professors at al Azhar to teach “Global Civ”? Do they? Why do white/western professors have to?

  32. No offence taken (I find offence-taking can often get in the way of a good conversation). But I fear you misunderstand me. My recommendation isn’t that we should only study non-Western Civs, but that we should be open to them but keep Western Civ on the books (as it were). I don’t know how things are in Chinese universities, but I think it would be good for them to study some Western Civ and some Chinese Civ, just as I think it would be good for us (though they might do more Chinese Civ and we might do Western Civ).

  33. Hans van Niekerk says

    It is slightly incredible that no one has yet mentioned the superb historical work of RICARDO
    DUCHESNE, the Canadian historical sociologist with the book ‘THE UNIQUENESS OF
    WESTERN CIVILIZATION’ (Brill Academic Pub, 2011)
    That’s a challenging and obnoxious title for contemporary western and non-western students !

  34. Hans van Niekerk says

    I’m repeating myself. So i beg for some leniency.

    It is slightly incredible that no one has yet mentioned the superb historical work of RICARDO
    DUCHESNE, the Canadian historical sociologist with the book ‘THE UNIQUENESS OF
    WESTERN CIVILIZATION’ (Brill Academic Pub, 2011)

    That’s a challenging and obnoxious title for contemporary western and non-western students !

  35. JackD says

    If the purpose of Quillette is to be a venue for people to say things that are hard to say in other places, “multiculturalism is awesome” seems a bit misplaced. Where can you NOT cheerlead multiculturalism?

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