Why We Should Study the History of Western Civilization

By Kagan, Donald | Modern Age, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Why We Should Study the History of Western Civilization


Kagan, Donald, Modern Age


Over the years I have gotten into trouble more than a few times for things I have written or said in public, but I suppose the chief cause of my notoriety is a speech I gave to the freshmen of Yale College suggesting that they would be wise to make the study of Western civilization the center of their pursuit of a liberal education. In that speech I focused on our needs as Americans. I pointed out the devastating effects of ethnic conflict and disunity around the world and the special problems and opportunities confronting the United States, a country that was never a nation in the sense of resting on common ancestry but one that depends on a set of beliefs and institutions deriving from Western traditions. I argued that the unity of our country and the defense of its political freedom and individual liberties required that its citizens have a good understanding of the ideas, history, and traditions that created them.

The debate that followed my talk revealed a broad and deep ignorance of the historical process by which the very values that encourage current criticisms of the Western experience came into being, taking them for granted, without comprehending their Western roots and their fragility even within the Western tradition. It does not seem to be understood, for instance, that the very idea of a liberal education is uniquely a product of the Western experience, as is the institution of the university in which it has developed.

But the value of studying the Western experience goes far beyond the needs of Americans. No fair-minded person can deny that, whatever its other characteristics, the West has created institutions of government and law that provide unprecedented freedom for its people and a body of natural scientific knowledge and technological achievement that together make possible a level of health and material prosperity undreamed of in earlier times and unknown outside the West and the areas it has influenced. I think V. S. Naipaul, born in Trinidad of Indian parents, is right to speak of the modern world as "our universal civilization" shaped chiefly by the West. Most people around the world who know of them want to benefit from the achievements of Western science and technology. Increasingly, they also want to participate in its political freedom. The evidence suggests, moreover, that a society cannot achieve the full benefits of Western science and technology without a commitment to reason and objectivity as essential to knowledge and to the political freedom that sustains it and helps it move forward. The primacy of reason and the pursuit of objectivity, therefore, both characteristic of the Western experience, seem to be essential for the achievement of the desired goals anywhere in the world.

The civilization of the West, however, was not the result of some inevitable process through which other cultures will automatically pass. It emerged from a unique history in which chance and accident often played a vital part. The institutions and ideas, therefore, that provide for freedom and improvement in the material conditions of life can not take root and flourish without an understanding of how they came about and what challenges they have had to surmount. Non-Western people who wish to share in the things that characterize modernity will need to study the ideas and history of Western civilization to achieve what they want, and Westerners who wish to preserve them must do the same.

The many civilizations adopted by the human race have shared basic characteristics. Most have tended toward cultural uniformity and stability; reason, though employed for all sorts of practical and intellectual purposes in some of these cultures, lacked independence from religion and the high status to challenge the most basic received ideas; the standard form of government has been monarchy; outside the West, republics have been unknown; rulers have been thought to be divine or the appointed spokesmen for divinity; religious and political institutions and beliefs have been thoroughly intertwined in a mutually supportive unified structure; government has not been subject to secular, reasoned analysis; it has rested on religious authority, tradition, and power; the concept of individual freedom has had no importance. …

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