The Real West

By Shapiro, Edward S. | The World and I, December 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Real West


Shapiro, Edward S., The World and I


Historian David Gress examines the origins and meaning of Western ideals, defending their importance to America's future.

From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents is a multi-faceted book. In part it is a learned and critical study of the emergence and development of the idea that Europeans and their descendants in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere constitute a distinctive "Western civilization." It is also a provocative interpretation of the history of the West, challenging the popular argument that the West is largely a product of the wisdom of classical Greece and Rome, that, in other words, the history of the West is essentially the story of "from Plato to NATO." Finally, it contains a convincing rebuttal to feminist, environmentalist, and socialist critics of the West who would have us believe that it is responsible for most of the world's ailments, or at least those ailments that are of most concern to academicians scribbling away in comfortable circumstances in Western universities.

If author David Gress is correct that the "West" and "Western civilization" are more than terms of convenience but delineate a distinctive culture, then one must ask, as he does, what parts of Europe has it encompassed, from whence does it stem, and what are its salient characteristics. Scholars for hundreds of years have debated whether the West includes the Byzantine Empire, Hungary, and Slavic East Europe, as Norman Davies and other historians have argued, or whether it comprises the European states west of the Elbe and Danube, essentially the countries that joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. From Plato to NATO contains a fascinating account of this debate.

The most common explanation for the nature of the West, what Gress calls "the Grand Narrative," emphasizes the impact of ancient Greece and Rome. The Grand Narrative defined liberty "as an abstract, philosophical principle, which it then traced through a series of great books and great ideas divorced from passion and politics back to classical Greece." This was the major theme of Will and Ariel Durant's famous multivolume history The Story of Civilization, the first volume of which appeared in 1935, as well as the underlying rationale for the introduction of academic courses in Western civilization at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and other leading American universities after World War I.

Here, as elsewhere, World War I was the great watershed of the twentieth century. The Allies interpreted the war as a struggle between Western political values and German autocracy and militarism. President Woodrow Wilson told Americans that the United States had entered the war to "make the world safe for democracy" and that this would be a war to end all wars, while his Fourteen Points called for the self-determination of European nations now that the German and Austro-Hungarian empires had been destroyed.

The Grand Narrative

The Grand Narrative also shaped the academic curriculum in American higher education. Today there is hardly an American university that does not offer courses in the history, philosophy, religious thought, and fine arts of Western civilization and require its students to have some familiarity with the culture of which they are a part.

This has not been universally popular. A decade ago Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest at Stanford University of disaffected students chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's gotta go." One of the more egregious results of the current academic vogue of multiculturalism and Third World victimization has been the reduction of course requirements in Western civilization and the replacement of works by "dead white males" in the academic literary canon with the writings of third-rate authors with an acceptable political and ethnic identity. When I was growing up, there was a popular rock and roll song titled "Roll Over Beethoven." As much as my generation enjoyed the song, we never thought its advice should be carried out by those responsible for maintaining the intellectual standards of higher education.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Real West
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?