the National Association of Scholars’ 100 Great Ideas for Higher Education
Every American should know Western civilization, of which
American culture and political institutions are an integral part.
By Western civilization I mean the constellation of ideas,
political arrangements, ethical precepts, and ways of organizing society and
the economy that are traceable to (1) the ethical monotheism of the Ancient
Hebrews, adopted by Christianity, which implied that man, as God’s creation,
has inherent worth and dignity, and (2) the tradition of rational inquiry,
indispensable to science and technological progress, that began in Ancient
Much of Western civilization is distinctive, and several of its essential
features are unique: a belief in progress and even, at times, in humanity’s
perfectibility; a Promethean faith in man’s ability to harness nature; a strong
emphasis–greater than in other civilizations–on individual rights and the
inviolability of individual conscience; and a belief in moral principles,
grounded in nature and discoverable through reason, that are timeless,
absolute, and universal.
To be fully educated, students should know what Western civilization has given
to America and to humanity. In practical terms, this means mandatory courses in
Western history, philosophy, and literature. Without having at least some
knowledge of these, American students cannot function as informed citizens in a
country arguably superior to the various dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and the
Middle East–themselves reflections of civilizations very different from Western
This does not imply that America is perfect. But to effect change, students
must understand the history of their own civilization and society.
Bergman teaches history at Central Connecticut State University.