Why do most colleges require students to take a semester (sometimes two) of Western civilization? We want students to know about the history of our civilization because, amazingly enough, humans keep making the same stupid mistakes. The historian’s hope — well, at least this historian’s hope — is that students will recognize the stupidity of first century BC Rome, and fourth century BC Greece, and Weimar Republic Germany, and about nine zillion other moments in time — and not do it again! It’s probably a hopeless task, but I try.
But there is another reason as well. The West has a rich heritage of faith and reason that we want our students to understand. There are so many historical and cultural references contained in our books and literature that will be utterly mystifying if you do not know from whence they came. My students (well, most of them) now know why “Spartan” as an adjective refers to very primitive or basic services or provisions. They know what “crossing the Rubicon” means — and whose crossing of that river meant that “the die is cast.” They understand the importance of channelization in warfare, because of how the Greeks used it to defeat the Persians at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis. They know why “Praetorian Guard” often means someone who is as much in charge as the person or institution that they are supposed to be protecting.
A recent week was devoted to a discussion of the conflict between centralization and localism in the medieval period. King Alfred the Great, the Danish invasion of England, and Afred’s efforts to drive the Danes out of the land inevitably led to a discussion of the Danegeld. The Danegeld was the tribute that the Danes required of the English to avoid further depredations — and England’s decision to no longer pay the Danegeld is part of the war that drives the Danes out.
During the cultural connection part of the class, I pulled out Rudyard Kipling’s 1911 poem called “The Dane-geld.” Shortly after 9/11, throughout the Western world, this marvelous poem was briefly in vogue again — until it became fashionable to hate and fear George Bush more than Osama bin Laden. I had thought of reading the poem myself, but decided to look for a dramatic reading instead.
After a little digging around, I found someone reading it, all right. It was not a particularly dramatic reading. But it was who read it, and where, and when that grabbed my attention quite powerfully.
Yes, it was President Ronald Reagan reading the poem at a meeting of the National Security Planning Group in 1985, when we were confronting a terrorist hijacking problem in the Middle East. (As Mark Twain observed, “History never repeats itself, but at least it rhymes.”) It is unfortunate that Reagan’s legacy of “No Danegeld” will always be tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair. (Strictly speaking, this was not paying Danegeld — but it certainly is not the muscular response that Kipling’s poem brings to mind, is it?) Nonetheless, in the larger scheme of twentieth century history, Reagan’s willingness to stand firm against the Soviet Union, and bluff them with SDI into bankruptcy, is a powerful reminder of what Kipling meant when he ended that poem:
“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!”