Something we haven’t heard many university commencement speakers discuss this year is our Western heritage — or the related topics of “Western civilization,” “Great Books” or “the classics.”
The hostility to such topics is not new; it goes back at least four decades. It reached its apex in 1988, when Jesse Jackson led a demonstration at Stanford University, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” — referring to a Stanford course that featured such authors as Homer and Voltaire.
Stanford did, of course, drop the course, and since that time most schools that even bother to teach “Western Civ” have tended to apologize for doing so.
Many academics, politicians and self-professed intellectuals dismiss 2,000 years of Western writing and thinking as the offspring of an imperialistic, sexist and despotic European culture, whose last remnant is found in the United States. They view the Great Books of our heritage as antiquated and illegitimate, unworthy of a contemporary education.
To the contrary, if we delegitimize “Western civilization” we delegitimize humankind’s long march from drudgery to comparative luxury.
As Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr., wrote in their book, “How the West Grew Rich,” “If we take the long view of human history and judge the economic lives of our ancestors by modern standards, it is a story of almost unrelieved wretchedness.”
What made this transition from “unrelieved wretchedness” possible?
While experts offer many opinions, there is widespread agreement among serious scholars that the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution largely were responsible — and that these forces were closely intertwined with the development of ideas about liberty.
Liberty was a necessary precursor to the Industrial Revolution because it made possible the freedom to own property, the freedom of scientific inquiry, and the freedom to explore new ideas.
But how did we get those freedoms? The idea that people have an inalienable right to be free (however much they are enslaved in practice) must have come from somewhere. The study of Western civilization explains the origins.
Some people (I am one) argue that the transformation of the West started with new concepts introduced as far back as early Judaism and Christianity, such as the separation of divine and earthly sovereignty. Others credit the Middle Ages, thanks to competition caused by fragmented power (popes, kings, nobility, and cities vying with one another) and the development of property rights out of feudalism. Others believe the phenomenon came much later, reflecting the science of Francis Bacon, the support of free speech by John Milton, the property theories of John Locke, and the classical liberalism of Adam Smith.
To argue for the study of Western civilization is not to argue against the study of Eastern civilization or African or native American civilizations.
At the very least, however, the intellectual history of Europe — with its foundations in the cultures of Greece and Rome and in the religions of the Middle East, including Islam — chronicles the gradual, fitful, and often violent progress of humans toward freedom.
While the writings of “dead white males,” such as Bacon and Locke, may not have caused the transformation of the world into its modern condition, in which liberty is considered inalienable, those writings accompanied that development and shed light on it.
Not all “Great Books,” of course, are inherently great in terms of their insights, beauty of language, or precision of logic — though many are.
They are worth reading and studying, however, because they chronicle human progress and the monumental changes that enabled vast numbers of people to move out of desperate poverty to a decent life.
Commencement speakers who focus only on the here and now do us a great disservice.
• Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.