Why Study Western Civilization?

In predictable fashion, Inside Higher Ed has reported on “The Vanishing West,” the National Association of Scholars’ study on the virtual disappearance of Western Civ courses from our colleges, by quoting only critics.  But the criticisms are the same ones I’ve been hearing for the 20 years I’ve been in academia.

Princeton Professor and president of the American Historical Association Anthony Grafton gives the oft-repeated (including in student essays on the topic) reason that today we have a “radically different” student body that might not be “as interested in such courses.”  Of course, no one asks students if they are “interested” in the required math and science courses.

Grafton also says that the “increasing specialization among professors” means that they are not equipped to teach such courses and might not “enjoy” doing so.

The latter reason points to a serious institutional problem. 

A lecturer (by definition non-tenured) whose syllabus was cited as exemplary is quoted as justifying Western Civilization as one of many civilizations. 

But we should not fear reprisals from insistence that the teaching of Western civilization is important. In fact, the reasons cited in this article for questioning the report point to reasons why it is more important than ever to teach Western Civilization.

1.) Yes, the student body has changed.  But students who are immigrants or foreign are less likely than their predecessors to have taken Western Civilization classes in high school or to have absorbed it from the culture.  

2.) A large part of education concerns exposing students to different ideas, and given students' foreign backgrounds and immersion in non-Western cultures through their primary and secondary educations, it is all the more important for them to learn the principles of what has become "different." 

3.) Without exposure to the notions of freedom and individuality that undergird Western culture students cannot discern the lacks in other cultures.  This became clear in one of my classes when a Chinese student repeated her government's line that freedoms need to be curtailed in order to maintain order and prosperity.  Her exposure to Western principles is important, as it is for native-born students, some of whom have never heard the word "communism.”

4.) Without the immersion in Western history and literature, any attempt to introduce students to the principles of Western civilization sounds like political indoctrination.  Without context that comes from deep study, ideas expressed in the popular media come across as dogmatic and jingoistic.

5.) An immersion in Western ideas, by offering a contrast, helps students to understand the other cultures that are being promoted (Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, indigenous, etc.)

6.) Those who emigrate as adults from repressive regimes often carry their suspicions of government with them.  This was true for my immigrant parents from then-communist Yugoslavia and the parents of my Ukrainian friends.  Immigrants’ children deserve exposure to the rich intellectual history of the West, the culture they live in.  With all the emphasis on “civic engagement” one would think that academics would use the NAS report to institute changes.


  • Mary Grabar

    Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

5 thoughts on “Why Study Western Civilization?

  1. I think we need to study Western civilization to learn a lesson from the past. Everything that’s happening now is like a repetition of what had happened before.It is because we ignored the lesson from what our ancestors experienced. Studying civilization is essential to our lives so we can relate from others, we can understand why a certain things became like this or like that. And we can’t commit the same mistakes again. It is also needed to realized and understand the differences of people in culture. So we could not judge others as they are because we understand the root of it.

  2. The Major reason for studying Western Civilization is to learn from whence comes what today we call “ideological thinking.” It major source was not religion (that would be dogma, ritual, and myth, which are not the same as ideology), but rather that of Athenian sophistry. The sophists practiced “gnosis,” the Greek term for a sort of thinking heavily influenced by a religious piety (of the Greek sort) but with a decided claim to be “knowledge” rather than belief. Plato’s dialogues are a critique of just this gnosticism, and unfortunately by the Hellenistic phrase of Western development gnosticism emerged in the two earliest of the three western religions, Judaism and Christianity, and then followed by Islam. Those that practice modern ideology–whether from the West, East, or Middle East– are exhibiting forms of such gnosticism, and Plato’s “divided line” separating real knowledge from opinion is what the modern American and European academies have forgotten (or never learned). Students who identify Western culture with racism, classism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism (for sort, combining all of these sins: “Otherism”) are applying gnostic ideology to the West. Then they are told to learn the implied superior nature of the Other cultures, hence Otherism. So both West Civ and “the Rest” are both ideological constructs; however, the students are brainwashed to assume that the latter, the Other cultures, are the preferred cultures, because they are Other. Not being aware of such ideological thinking and its source, the students implicitly appropriate unto themselves their sense of moral superiority in defaming the West and elevating all Others. Such is gnosis, moral superiority masquerading as true knowledge. It is no conincidence, then, that Plato constructed a “Republic” which features the propagandizing of 10-year old minds, which is about what these modern students have. Plato’s message, in that dialogue on an “ideal city” led by philosopher-kings, was that such an ideal will inevitably, in order to be realized in history, turn into a distopia, a totalitarianism in which philosophers are no longer wise but power-bent. Sounds to me that our academic thinkers, especially philsophers and those hiding as “scientists” in sociology, psychology, and politics (govt.)are ignoring Plato’s truth, that unless a society is based on the microcosmic PSYCHIC development of its citizens, good will bent on social justice will be converted into demonic evil. We seem to be on that path, but without the broad study of Western Civ–Plato, as well as others, must be put into proper context, in his call that of Greek religion and Pre-Socratic thought, especially that of Heraclitus–we have know way of learning of our predicament.

  3. It’s mind boggling to think that so many students might never be exposed to great, yes, Western, literature. Our civilization has been built in part upon it’s very rich writing. To read a high level of expression takes you far beyond doggerel, rap and such. (I’m thinking of Common at the White House. Please.)
    We will be throwing away so much if we replace Western Civ studies with a lot of the lesser lights that these putative professors trumpet.

  4. We need to study Western Civilization to learn to participate intelligently. Without participation the republic fails and the electorate is overrun by gangsters.

  5. How can anyone know who we are, and the choices made to make us what we are, without studying Western Civilization and supporting studies in literature and other humanities? There were devastating changes made to education beginning in the 60s, as you know. The policy decision made in the 50s that culture doesn’t matter shows how powerful the enemy had become even then. Today, I suspect that a group of smart, dedicated people are making White House decisions; and they have been planning what we see happening for 50+ years. I hope it isn’t too late.

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