Metamorphosis, or Why We Should Study the West

History was once timeless – or nearly so. A Renaissance reader of Livy or Thucydides would have found himself transported to a quite recognizable world. Monarchs and city states, fleets powered by wind and muscle, armies meeting at swords’ point, weather moving faster than word, visitations of Plague -- all would have seemed quite familiar, down to the handwritten texts in which the events had first been described. Likewise (minus the city states) would it have seemed to a Ming literatus, perusing the court histories of the Sung, Tang, or Han. In both cases things had, of course, changed in many specific ways. But the warp and woof of human existence, the conditions of daily life, remained largely the same, even at its pinnacle. So Machiavelli could advise his Prince drawing now from antiquity, now from the careers of contemporaries like the Borgias. So too an emperor of the Ming could be advised on how to treat with the barbarous Jurchens – as a Han emperor, fifteen hundred years before, had handled the barbarous Xiongnu.

Today, we stare at all but recent history – if we take pains to gaze on it at all – as across a vast divide. To be sure, the deepest roots of the human condition remain the same. We’re still born, pay taxes, and die. Yet for most of us life on that farther shore, were we compelled to live it, would seem a purgatory. And most of its denizens would regard us as inhabiting an earthly paradise. Be it with respect to life-expectancy, medicine, hygiene, common comforts, personal mobility, communications, or entertainment, the royalty of yesteryear, Machiavelli’s Prince, or China’s Son of Heaven, could only gape in amazement at what Everyman now enjoys. And this says nothing of the unexampled political, intellectual, religious, and personal liberties widely exercised by the un-princely and non-imperial of today. History still has an immense amount to teach us, but our questions of it, when well-framed, must be at least as attentive to disjuncture as continuity. The once seemingly static now flows torrentially, readily expunging even the most venerable of landmarks.

One thing history’s torrent appears to be sweeping away is, ironically, the study of its most productive wellspring, Western civilization. A NAS report, released recently, documents the extent of this vanishing. The traditional Western civilization survey requirement, commonplace only decades ago, has become a rarity both for students in general and history majors in particular, and most so at those institutions where America’s opinion leadership is shaped. It is also steadily losing ground in our high schools.

This state of affairs is a natural prompt for several questions about that much-discussed topic, “civic literacy” – or perhaps more adequately to formulate it with respect to the mission of liberal education, “civilizational sophistication.” For one, are most students really aware of how much modern civilization has quickened the pace of social change? For another, do they have more than an inkling of how wondrous is the wealth and freedom that surround them? And for a last, do they have much sense of the nature of the forces to which these wonders owe their birth? Levels of historical knowledge being what they are – especially among the young – there is little ground for complacency on any of these counts. But if these understandings are insufficient, or absent, what hope is there for the stewardship our bounties deserve?

Unfortunately, cultivating such awareness isn’t much of a priority in higher education today, at least if survival of the one academic vehicle whose mission was to examine modernity’s assent is anything to go by. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the crassly professional – scholarly specialists not wishing to waste their time on general courses of any sort – through the fashionably enlightened – a belief that concentrating on own culture is parochial – to the outright ideological – the view that our history is largely an occasion for shame -- the Western history survey course, not only as a requirement, but even as an elective, looks on its way to extinction.

Much is at stake here. A condition as exceptionally benign as our own is only likely to be sustained when fully appreciated. So let’s do a little intellectual pushback and see what can be argued on behalf of this beleaguered educational remnant. Our premises will be two. The first, unimpeachable if rather obvious, is that in teaching history the stress should be on that which is most important. The second, probably less substantial, but certainly compelling to contemporary educators, is that in teaching history we should be preparing students for life in a new globalized age.

The first leads to a conclusion that should be no less evident than its premise: If historical importance is being sought, doesn’t it most reside in the origins of our exceptionality, in the miracle of Western modernity? The second oddly boomerangs: If we’re really preparing students for “globalism,” on what does our new worldwide dispensation rest, if not, almost in its entirety, Western derived institutions? Educationally it’s not “the West or the world.” Without the West nothing like the modern world would exist.