Why Study Western Civilization?

Once upon a time, when a person intended to learn about education, the words “Western civilization” did not offend him. Today, for reasons that elude many of us, hearers now take offense at these words and the studies they embody.

I witnessed this firsthand at a recent homeschooling convention in a room filled to its three hundred-seat capacity, as our Classical Education Panel fielded questions. As soon as one member of the panel described the content of classical education as “the great literature, music, art, and ideas of Western civilization,” a woman near the front of the room abruptly gathered her belongings and left our session, head held high all the way to the back door.

We wondered if, to soften our stance in pre-emptive avoidance of a growing animosity toward Western civilization, we should say that a classical education teaches the great literature, art, music, and ideas of “all time and places,” rather than of “Western civilization.” But I wonder if this is really necessary. Are there not good reasons we can confidently give for why Western civilization is worth passing on?

Who We Are

In A History of Western Civilization by Thomas Patrick Neill et al., we read that the history of Western civilization is the story of our civilization: how we have come to be what we are. (In a telling discarding of books such as this, my husband purchased the 1,255-page volume for a quarter at our library sale.) The authors defend an emphasis on Western civilization with these words:

Various civilizations have developed in the course of time, such as those of China, India, the Near East, and the West. We cannot study them all in detail. But the leading civilization, which prevails or is imitated in every quarter of the world today, is Western civilization, which also happens to be our own. Confronted by the necessity of selection and the desirability of a certain degree of concentration and explanation, it is natural for us to choose the latter, without entirely neglecting its relation to the others.

How We Study

Perhaps one difficulty in this discussion arises because of the way history is now studied. The subject of history, once taught and learned as a body of knowledge, became relegated to the pile of “social studies,” with less emphasis on a mastered, comprehensive body of knowledge and more opportunity for widespread dabbling. Time magazine, November 6, 1940, noticed the shift and noted that progressive education “undid the old packages of history, geography, etc., and dumped all information in one basket—social studies.” Rather than seek to teach influential names, dates, places, and events in Western civilization, one influential textbook series, Man and His Changing Society, focused “social studies” on students’ own investigation of current and future social problems.

What We Teach

Western civilization emerged in Mediterranean Europe during classical antiquity and is derived principally from Greek, Roman, and Christian elements. The authors of A History of Western Civilization tell us that “the Greek contribution was paramount in intellectual and artistic fields; the Roman in social organization and practical application; the Christian, in the spiritual and religious realms.”

They add that “a knowledge of our past, such as is provided by the history of Western civilization, helps us to comprehend ‘how things have come to be what they are,’ and enables us to place ourselves more intelligently in the world.” As Cicero famously writes, “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child.”

More Than History

As we read any thorough treatment of Western civilization, we begin to appreciate the need for teaching history in context as we acknowledge that reason cannot suffice without faith, liberty without morality, and knowledge without love. In the midst of opposition, there has always been a determined core of men and women in the Western tradition who have held firmly to the Christian faith and taught this to their children. The authors of A History of Western Civilization write that “in the last generation this group seems to have grown larger, more coherent and more influential—a ray of light and hope to an age that possesses the wherewithal to destroy itself.” We seek to carry this tradition forth today.

Our Heritage

A classical education is a heritage bestowed upon us to preserve for and convey to future generations. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Handel’s Messiah, Plutarch’s Lives, Augustine’s Confessions, Galileo’s Two New Sciences, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the Gospel of John belong to all of our students. I recently visited King’s Grove School, a classical school near Tulsa, Oklahoma, devoted to teaching students with special needs. In the mornings, students learn reading and spelling, writing and arithmetic. In the afternoons between necessary therapies, they hear beautiful music and gaze upon great art through the “Wonder, Beauty, and Imagination” section of our Simply Classical Curriculum. I observed with delight as students listened to a reading from the Bible about eternal life, heard Pachelbel’s simple “Canon in D,” and studied the warm, golden landscape of “Peace and Plenty” by George Inness. One young girl, a student with Down syndrome, fixed her eyes on the painting and spoke slowly with great longing, “I want to go there.” Her teacher softly told her, “In Jesus, we will all go to the land of peace and plenty.”

Thus, amid any detractors that may argue otherwise, we proceed. Not only this, we assume a leading role in the preservation and transmission of our great heritage for all of our students. We freely study the lands, cultures, and peoples of all time and in all places, but our emphasis will remain on the heritage that brought us to this place in time and history. Informed by the Holy Scriptures at every level of instruction for every student, may the study of Western civilization continue to be a ray of light and hope to an age that possesses the wherewithal to destroy itself.

Leave a Reply