The question posed in the title tends to immediately give rise to a normative question: Is the West good or bad? Such a question misses the point. We do not study a subject because of its positive or negative impact, but because it made an impact so enormous that to ignore it would cause one to be unable to fully understand the modern world. Should we ever decide to disregard the horrors of history precisely because they left a dark mark, we would leave ourselves vulnerable to committing the same mistakes.
I do not intend to make a case for the superiority of Western Civilization in this essay; instead, my task is more modest, though not inconsequential given the growing ignorance of Western history and culture. I will be making a case for why one ought to study Western Civilization, in an academic setting or otherwise. One cannot understand the modern world without having at least an elementary comprehension of the historical and global impact of the West. Modern technological progress, religious skepticism, racial resentment, and free political systems are meaningless facts of life without studying Western Civilization. Americans, in particular, ought to be concerned with Western ideas and values, for they surround us. America, in fact, may be considered the ultimate product of Western thought: a potent potpourri of Enlightenment rationalism and ideals mixed with pluralism, an abiding sense of God and a persistent influence of classical thinkers in architecture and institutions.
Although the study of Western Civilization is interdisciplinary, it is especially a subject for historical inquiry. Most importantly, however, there is a moral dimension to the study of Western Civilization and history in general.
It is worth taking a moment’s pause to first consider the definition of Western Civilization. A quick search turns up the following Wikipedia definition:
“a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies that have some origin or association with Europe. The term is applied to European countries and countries whose history is strongly marked by European immigration, colonization, and influence, such as the continents of the Americas and Australasia…”
Western Civilization, therefore, is both cultural and geographical. Certain features of this culture, like Christianity, the scientific method, rationalism and empiricism, and representative government, distinguish the West. Furthermore, Professor James Kurth identified three traditions of Western Civilization: “(1) the classical culture of Greece and Rome; (2) the Christian religion, particularly Western Christianity, and (3) the Enlightenment of the modern era.”
In sum, when speaking of Western Civilization, I mean the cultural traditions and concomitant ideals, values, and institutions that were originally centered in Europe before spreading throughout the world and becoming particularly ingrained in North America and Australia.
The first part of my argument for studying Western Civilization is simple enough: the modern world is just a meaningless state of affairs without studying where it came from, and it is undeniable that the West has greatly affected the rise of the modern world. In a positive sense, Donald Kagan noted,
“No fair-minded person can deny that, whatever its other characteristics, the West has created institutions of government and law that provide unprecedented freedom for its people and a body of natural scientific knowledge and technological achievement that together make possible a level of health and material prosperity undreamed of in earlier times and unknown outside the West and the areas it has influenced.”
To maintain the distinctly Western traditions of political freedom, individual rights, rigorous and methodical scientific inquiry, and rapid technological innovation, all of which, to some degree, seem worthy of preservation, we must study the course of Western Civilization to understand how they emerged, as well as which conditions have been inimical or conducive to their flourishing.
On the other hand, the moral dimension of studying the West becomes apparent when we see that Western ideas and values have often been put to negative uses. Unbridled freedom breeds chaos and lawlessness. An unchecked belief in progress, reason, and the unswerving tide of history have had terrible implications: “scientific” racism, utopian (aka totalitarian) social engineering, the rise of relativism and secularism…the list goes on and on. These values are not good in and of themselves, but in how they are embraced and put to use; only by studying Western Civilization do we learn of these abuses and how to avoid them in society and our own lives.
Without even a basic knowledge of Western Civilization, these ideas and ways of thinking which are implanted in modern society are meaningless. What is freedom? Is freedom to be used to pursue pleasure or something more? What is reason and where does it come from? Can the world be understood by reason alone? Trying to answer these questions ourselves, without a foundational knowledge concerning where these concepts came from, how they have been used for good and evil, and how individuals, societies, and states have grappled with these questions, is foolish, arrogant, and ignorant. If freedom is simply placed in front of someone, how are they alone to understand what it is, what its implications are, and whether and to what extent it is morally good? Of course, they could experience it, but without any past wisdom to guide their experience or prevent them from faltering.
Americans have even more reason to be students of Western Civilization. The foundations of the West can be found in four cities. From Jerusalem came the idea of transcendent order undergirding law and justice; from Athens emerged the notion of man as political and social animal; from Rome arose the concepts of republics, checks and balances, and separation of powers; and from London ideas of equality under the law and the social contract became commonplace in political discourse.
These ideas ought to sound familiar because each of them is embodied in America. Our Declaration of Independence boldly states that our rights come from God and thus are unalienable. Checks and balances and separation of powers were woven into the Constitution. As members of families, as well as local, state-level, and national communities, Americans are expected to sacrifice unfettered freedom and respect authority, and in return, have their remaining rights and freedoms protected in a just, ordered society.
Americans cannot fully appreciate American ideals without studying Western Civilization, for the Founders, in essence, were responding to a long tradition of Western political and social thought as they crafted the United States.
The consequences, real and potential, of ignoring history have been spelled out time and again. To disregard the past is to assume man is capable of functioning without it, without tradition to restrain and admonish. With no sense of history, tradition, or received wisdom, it is possible to believe the world can be molded at will and destiny can be created on a whim. In short, the present and future become a blank canvass on which to draw with no apparent force to hold one back from any decision.
Whittaker Chambers called this “man’s second oldest faith,” a vision of man as God, each one a bearer of their own so-called truth and wisdom, and all of them together permanently on the road of progress. But my argument here is not about God, but history and the study of Western Civilization. Where we are today, as free, intelligent and innovative beings capable of technological advancement and incredible scientific discoveries did not come about inevitably and will not last indefinitely if we do not use our newfound liberties and abilities responsibly.
To use them responsibly, it is imperative that we study Western Civilization, for it has largely constructed our modern world. From this, we remember that freedom purely in pursuit of pleasure, power, and passion reduces us to animals and tears the fabric of social order. From this, we learn that “reason” and “progress” alone and uninhibited have at times reduced humans to automatons of the state, and even fostered genocide and war. From this, we may be called back to humility whenever we assume nothing can go wrong.
We are privileged to be able to look to the past in order to improve ourselves as individuals and as a society. To reject the study of Western Civilization is tantamount to rejecting our complete human heritage. Through study, we gain a new sense of appreciation for what we have, an understanding of where we have fallen short, a better sense of how to improve, and repeated warnings of how pride and arrogance have altered the course of history for the worse.
We must also remember that progress is not its own end; rather, the end of progress is Truth. The purpose of education is to bring us closer to Truth—and Truth cannot penetrate willful ignorance.