There’s nothing as western as West Texas, its sky a vast inverted bowl, its land austere and boundless, its people tough, terse, and hard working. These aren’t images that readily bring to mind the Parthenon or Temple Mount, but they do suggest what makes West Texas’ landscape a signifier for the achievement of Western civilization as a whole. Only a civilization immensely fecund, bursting with energy, imagination, and confidence, could have brought forth the abundance of productive activity needed to make these daunting plains a livable space. Oil derricks, wind farms, cotton fields, ranches, even wineries, flourish amidst the dusty expanse, as does a notable university, Texas Tech. Last fall, the enterprise and courage of this institution (and especially its chancellor Kent Hance), so emblematic of the region and people that its serves, tempted me from my eastern haunts to what many elsewhere in academe might have thought a mission impossible, the creation of a program aiming to do intellectual justice to the Western miracle and the transformation of the human condition it has wrought.
During its first ten months Texas Tech’s Institute for the Study of Western Civilization has launched a lecture and debate series devoted to exploring “big picture” questions about the West’s nature, origins, and future. Its 2012-2013 schedule included a brilliant exposition by Alan Charles Kors on the emergence of religious tolerance in the West, an illuminating debate on the future of the Western welfare state between the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner and former president of the American Economic History Association Peter Lindhert, and a penetrating talk on the character of scientific inquiry and its threatened corruption by philosopher Susan Haack. (These and others events can each be viewed online on the Institute’s website.)
Turnouts have been sizeable and audience reaction enthusiastic. Indeed, the quality and breadth of the Institute’s first-year programming has won it a growing circle of friends, some of whom were originally skeptical about the university’s having hired the founder of the National Association of Scholars to lead it. Even more promising has been approval by the Honors College faculty of a “concentration in Western civilization” as part of the Honors College’s “Arts and Humanities major”, which is likely to evolve with time into an increasingly ambitious undergraduate enterprise. But all that’s just meant for starters.
Studying the Founding
A significant number of innovative academic programs have recently emerged around the country seeking to revive the study of subjects of high political and cultural significance otherwise fallen into neglect. Some of these programs assay the American Founding, others look at free institutions more generally, a few are centered on classical antiquity, many examine great texts, the largest number, including Texas Tech’s burgeoning and important Free Market Institute, have an economic focus, and there are several that combine these interests. The Institute, however, has a particularly consequential charge, largely novel to itself. The last three centuries of Western history have, in many respects, lifted humankind to what our forebears would have considered an almost godlike state. We are, unavoidably, the stewards of this transfiguration. The question that lies most centrally in the Institute’s sights is nothing less than how this wondrous transfiguration can be preserved and further enriched. There could be none more crucial.
Preservation is no small matter and certainly not to be taken for granted. The quality of our lives has become so materially and (for some at least) culturally elevated as to be in historical perspective utterly anomalous. An apparent anomaly may prove the beginning of a permanent change of state but we can’t safely assume that’s so in this case – it could equally prove a bubble. And since it’s a long, long way down to humankind’s baseline vale of tears, failure in our high wire act might be fatal to our species. To properly measure our steps, some grasp of the forces that delivered us to these heights is essential.
One thing I believe we can be reasonably sure of is that we didn’t ascend by reason alone or through fully purposeful action. Reason is a marvelous thing but historically it’s too often been employed selfishly and destructively by autocrats, conquerors, and parasitical elites. What accelerated our rise is thus less reason alone than reason diverted from the predatory to the productive. And this diversion has probably had as much, if not a good deal more, to do with indirect causes and unusual contingencies than reasoned recognition and the planned pursuit of a better world. The most conspicuous examples of hyper-calculation from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks have ended in unmitigated disaster.
In small and focused doses, of course, well intentioned reason is indispensable to progress. The hallmark of many of the new academic programs aforesaid is to help this further through clarifying argument, analyzing, for instance, the efficiencies and democracy of market mechanisms, or the wisdom and insight of the classically liberal principals of government. But as indispensable as this sort of analysis is – and as well suited as it is to an academic setting – it is not sufficient. It needs to be accompanied by a deeper probing.
A Worldwide Frame of Reference
This is what, in interdisciplinary fashion, the Institute will seek to do, becoming, hopefully, a major research center and hub of networked investigation into the dynamic of human advance exemplified by the Western miracle. Much of its inquiry will be historical, exploring the concatenation of social and geographic circumstances which allowed productive forces, both commercial and intellectual, to break free from the confinements to which they had been generally held in thrall. Where this touches upon institutional matrixes, looking forward as well as past, it will also involve political economy, the melding of political science, economics, and sociology to examine how the relation of private and public spheres stimulates or thwarts enterprise. Where this pertains to ideals, worldviews, and values, it will enlist philosophy, literary scholarship and the study of religion, being especially interested in the clash of ideologies and its outcome. The nature of scientific inquiry, its roots, its distinctiveness from other types of theory-shaping, and the pressures that preserve or corrupt its integrity, will raise issues requiring the input of scientists and students of science. Biology and cognitive science will find a voice in the Institute’s discussion of human nature, its limits, and its potential for powering and perverting progress, as well as technology’s interaction with the nature. Scenario building and the study of alternate futures will be part of its work as well, and since one can’t understand the West without a worldwide frame of reference, the will be a major comparative dimension to the Institute’s work. To repeat, all of these lines of scrutiny will aim at asking how the West transformed the human condition and what we should be doing to preserve and enrich that transformation. All serious viewpoints will be welcomed and politically correct strictures on debate resolutely shunned.
This is a tall order to be met, but one our promethean potential requires if it is to bear sustained and beneficent fruit. The academic vocation generally prizes specialization and the concentration of research energies on intellectual tasks chosen for their managerial feasibility, as it generally should. But there is room for the more visionary as well, provided the vision can be pursued with decent rigor and without the straightjacket of dogma.
West Texas is a natural home for visions, literally a landscape where, as it’s sometimes said, you can “watch your dog run away for three days” and where thinking big has typically been the key to individual success. Happily, Texas Tech has leaders whose spirit matches their surroundings and are ready to inspire the rest of American academe to a return to lofty and important intellectual purpose.