Should students study Western Civ as an introduction to the modern world? Or would they do better with World History? It’s been a topic of much debate. I tried to give you a bit of the history of the idea of “western civilization” and the college course as taught in the U.S. since the First World War. You’ll see that the very idea became a contentious one in the late 1980s and 1990s as students, faculty, educators and politicians argued over the proper matter of a liberal education. See a couple articles from the New York Times that reveal something of the debate at its loudest (and perhaps least enlightening) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here and here. Or see this more recent piece looking back at it. Here.
If you want a fuller history of the course, take a look at the AHR Forum from 1992 on “The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization” or William McNeill’s meditations on “World History and the Rise and Fall of the West.”
We spent some time this first week thinking about Samuel Huntington’s definition of Western civilization and his contention that the West was locked in a struggle – “the clash of civilizations” he called it in his important 1996 book – with the civilizations of Asia, Islam, Russia, India, Africa, Latin America. As you should have understood, I was sharply critical of his central idea that civilizations were so clearly defined. But I suggested that his picture of the inheritance of Western Civ. is useful in laying out the central terms of the “triumphant” vision of Western Civ. There has been soooo much debate on Huntington and his thesis. Take a look at this lecture by the man himself or at this response by Edward Said. Looking to the example of India, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the real fault lines are those that exist within societies. See her lecture, drawn from her book, “The Clash Within.”
What else will help to start thinking about western civilization and the study of history? You could watch this silly computer animation. Or contemplate what you might remember from this course five years after Wooster by watching Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University.