'Western Civilization' Remains Legitimate

By Shaw, Jane S. | Winnipeg Free Press, May 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Western Civilization' Remains Legitimate


Shaw, Jane S., Winnipeg Free Press


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 the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution largely were responsible -- and 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 people have an inalienable right to be free (however much they are enslaved in practice) must have come from somewhere.

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