The Real West

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

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