What Is Western Civilization?

What is Western Civilization

One of the questions I most often hear about classical education is how it relates to Christianity. The question comes in various forms, usually something like, “What is Christian about classical Christian education?” Or, “How can I reconcile classical education with Christianity?”

In fact, when you don’t say “classical Christian education” and explicity state that you mean to include Christianity, some Christian educators get nervous. Part of the reason people have questions like this is because of a misunderstanding about what classical education is.

This is partly due to the popular conception of classical education as being merely Dorothy Sayers’ “method”: the grammar stage, in which children like to memorize, the dialectic stage, in which students begin to think analytically and are able to understand logic, and the rhetoric stage, in which students begin to think synthetically and imaginatively. But whatever you think of Dorothy Sayers’ developmental model, she never said that her method was the sum and substance of classical education.

Passing on Western Civilization

The reason we ask questions about how we can “reconcile” the classical with the Christian is that we think that there is an entity on one side of the cultural ledger called “Christianity,” and another entity on the other side called “classical” (which we think is Sayers’ “method”), and we think they have little to do with each other. In fact, Christian education has always consisted of an organically integrated set of knowledge and skills that stands in no need of being reconciled. Both Sayers and her audience would have assumed that education was the study of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of Western civilization using the tools of the liberal arts. Sayers and every educator of her time would have acknowledged that the purpose of education was to pass on this body of knowledge, a body of knowledge which we call a “culture.” Her method was only a way to do this better.

We are the products of an education system that no longer passes our civilization down to us. We are all guinea pigs in a grand cultural experiment in what the writer George Steiner has called “planned amnesia.” For two or three generations now, schools have abandoned the classical ideal of education and gone on to what they consider better things—job training and political indoctrination. The former they unfortunately don’t do well, and the latter they unfortunately do very well. In one case, schools no longer have time for much literature or history because these studies take up time that could be used for vocational skills training. In the other, they no longer value Western civilization, and in many cases actively undermine it.

The main purpose of the old classical education was to pass on our culture—its knowledge, its values, its ideals. This, said Russell Kirk, is what the humanities are for: “to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their rightful place in the scheme of things.” The purpose was to learn, not how to become a welder or an accountant or a computer programmer, but how to become a human being—which, incidentally, also makes you a better welder or accountant or programmer.

A culture is an accumulation of the knowledge and opinions, discussions and arguments, agreements and disagreements, hopes and aspirations of past generations. It has to be actively passed on to each succeeding generation, not only to ensure continuity and stability, but to serve as a test of every practice and policy, a check to every innovation.

Citizens and Philosophers

According to Mortimer Adler, every human being is both a citizen and a philosopher. No matter what else a person is—a father or a mother, a follower or a leader, a scientist or a farmer—everyone is a citizen of a state or member of a society, and everyone is a thinker.

A citizen, says Jeffrey Hart (paraphrasing Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy), “is a person who, if need be, can re-create his civilization.” But people have to be trained to do such things. We are tempted to think that our government institutions, our cultural institutions, and our societal norms will just continue on autopilot. But this is not true.

“If you leave a thing alone,” said G. K. Chesterton, “you leave it to a torrent of change”:

If you leave a white fence post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

Our culture is in constant need of renewal, if not explicit defense—processes in which traditional knowledge and understanding are essential. “Reform,” the journalist Joseph Sobran once said, “implies form.” We need to teach each new generation the ideal—a classical Christian ideal—which our own founding fathers were attempting to approximate. That means, not that we must always keep things the same—although that will constitute much of our activity as citizens—but that, in considering ways in which we may improve things, we know what it is we are aiming for—a goal informed by the wisdom of the past.

History and Literature

The only way to attain this goal is to have some command of our culture’s history and literature. History is best at telling us what did happen, while literature is best at telling us what should happen. The preservation of our civilization requires not only a cultural literacy, but a moral literacy.

We don’t all need to be experts who know every nook and cranny of our past, and we don’t need to have a comprehensive mastery of the great authors, the great books, and the great ideas. But we do need to have a basic familiarity with our history as well as a solid mastery in a small body of basic historical and literary knowledge that we share with everyone else in our society. The poet T. S. Eliot observed, on one of his visits to the United States, that while American students seemed to be very intelligent, they did not have, as British students did, a recognizable body of shared historical and cultural knowledge. A culture requires less that we all know a lot than that we all know the same things. A culture requires common reference points, and it is one of the jobs of education to make sure that they are known by everyone—and that the next generation knows them as well as the previous one.

American education does a poor job of this. A generation or two ago, there was still something of a default common course of studies in history—colonial America, the founding period, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the progressive era, in addition to some study of ancient, medieval, and modern European history, and a default literary canon—Dickens, Austen, Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck.

But the political correctness of our modern academic establishment now causes them to view anything written before the last couple of decades with suspicion. This literature is increasingly seen in our ideological age as a series of monuments to racism and sexism, which therefore ill fits the new multicultural agenda. This also accounts for the decline in class time devoted to literature and history, which gets in the way of test preparation and hands-on projects anyway.

The Importance of the Liberal Arts

In order to undertake the hard task of cultural renewal—in order to understand what our society is and how it can be preserved and improved—we must be trained in the skills required to do it. If we are to know and understand our culture, we must know how to know and how to understand. This requires the skill of thinking.

The liberal arts were the set of linguistic and mathematical skills that students were expected to master in order to learn anything else. Under the old accounting, they consisted of three linguistic skills, called the “trivium” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and four mathematical skills, called the “quadrivium” (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). While modern proponents of “critical thinking skills” have a hard time saying exactly what those are, classical educators have a whole tradition that accomplished what modern educators say they want.

What Is Western Civilization?

We need to realize that the sum of classical education is more than Dorothy Sayers’ method, and that the body of cultural knowledge and the set of intellectual skills that have been left to us is not something incidental to education, but its very heart—a cultural inheritance that the early Christians saw as valuable enough to preserve and pass on.

Western civilization is the culture of Athens, the culture of Rome, and the culture of Jerusalem—transformed and perfected by Christianity. It is what has come down to us since roughly the fifth century A.D., preserved (mostly by Christian monks) through the Dark Ages, and restored to civilization in the High Middle Ages. It was what nourished Europe and was transplanted to America by, among others, the Puritans. It was what education was until approximately the 1920s. If it is ever fully extinguished, we will have cut ourselves off from ourselves. We will have fundamentally changed who we are, and will have done it without having given adequate thought to what we might become or who we should be, a thought we can only have with the help of the very tradition we will have lost.

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