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Will China Become the Last Refuge of Western Culture?

In this Wednesday, May 3, 2017 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, waves to teachers and students as he visits the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. (Ding Lin/Xinhua via AP)

No, this isn’t a joke.

Edward Luttwak, the distinguished Israeli-American strategist and public intellectual, tweeted the following this morning:

11 Chinese universities teach Greek and Latin. Another 20 seek staff to so as well. Back in the US, the Princeton CLASSICS department has just eliminated the Latin or Greek requirement “to address systemic racism”. Truly racist say I. Why not just end it ? Jobs await in 中国

The Chinese characters at the end mean “Middle Kingdom.”

Princeton created an uproar by ditching the requirement for classics majors to learn Greek or Latin. That shouldn’t be a surprise: In 2017 Harvard eliminated the music theory requirement for music majors. Music theory is to music what grammar and vocabulary are to language.

In China, meanwhile, up to 100 million children study piano, not counting orchestral instruments. Classical music thrives in Japan and South Korea as well as China, where aspiring youngsters and their parents have embraced the most characteristically Western art form. As Luttwak observes, it isn’t just music: Chinese universities are building up their classics departments.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is China’s enormous interest in Western philosophy. Peking University is China’s Harvard, and its undergraduate philosophy syllabus puts every American university to shame. There are two courses on Aristotle, three on Plato, four on Kant and five on Hegel, three on Nietzsche, two on set theory, and twenty-two (no typo) on logic. Of course, there are also courses on Chinese philosophy, and a bunch on Marxism (my guess is that the Marx courses aren’t well attended).

China offers its undergraduates a deep dive into the Western mind–Greek, Latin, and Continental European (although there also are a couple of offerings on John Rawls). Why? China appreciates Western creativity and wants to learn the trick. China’s hierarchical society doesn’t foster creativity (that is, tolerate the eccentrics and oddballs who discover things like General Relativity) as well as the West, to be sure. But learning the philosophy and music of the West is the next best thing.

Under Mao Zedong, China had a “cultural revolution” that destroyed its universities and sent academics (and many others) into exile to “learn from the peasants” in remote villages). Now WE are having our own cultural revolution, as a Chinese acquaintance taunted me, complete with “struggle sessions” and “criticism and self-criticism” over supposed systemic racism.

Our brightest young people are out trying to devise the next killer app. The way things are going, we will be geeks in a new Roman Empire. The dissipated, infertile Greeks fell to the intellectually inferior Romans, who absorbed the parts of Greek culture they found useful and, in their own way, preserved it. As we burn down our own culture, China may become the last refuge of classical philology, Western philosophy, and classical music.