The Uniqueness of Western Civilization

By Farhat-Holzman, Laina | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Uniqueness of Western Civilization


Farhat-Holzman, Laina, Comparative Civilizations Review


Ricardo Duchesne. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Brill Press, 2011. Reviewed by Laina Farhat-Holzman

Overview: After many decades of replacing courses in Western Civilization with World History, some younger historians are beginning to challenge this approach. The teaching of history, like educational philosophy in general, goes through cycles, fashions, and fads. In the case of history, this discipline has never been detached from other disciplines, nor from the social philosophies of the day. The first duty of education is to teach us who we are and how we became what we are today.

Anthropologists in particular have been responsible for the past half-century of dethroning Western Civilization from its central role in the consciousness of the educated West. Anthropology, in response to the 19th century's view that Western Civilization was unlike that of any other civilizations, has reversed this view by instituting the model of non-judgment: treating all other societal models as equivalent, in the hope of avoiding prejudice or intolerance. However, taking this moral high ground was not enough to avoid prejudice. Western civilization had to be found to be imperialistic, violent, and evil - and if taught at all, only the warts, not the virtues, had to be emphasized. In academically throwing out the baby with the bath water, students lost sight of what has made the West distinctly different - and arguably more fortunate - than every other civilization.

Despite the proliferation of "ethnic studies," few scholars wanted to take on "Indo-European Studies," lest they be thought to support the Nazi movement's wildly flawed theory of Aryan superiority. Thus, out of fear of criticism and in obedience to the Post- World War II progressivism, not only was Western Civilization tossed out, but even "Indo-European Studies."

Ricardo Duchesne, a Canadian professor and scholar, has taken on this challenge, producing a volume that took a decade to write, and one that I believe may become as consequential as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which accentuated the role of geographic good fortune to explain the rise of the West, and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, which warned of wars on the bloody borders of Islamic Civilization with all of its neighbors.

Toby E. Huffs Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective showed in great detail why the 17th century rise of the scientific revolution was not just a temporary stroke of good luck, but was the inevitable result of an entirely unique civilization that began with ancient Greece. There were good reasons why this revolution (and its ultimate string of freedoms that produced the modern world) did not, and could not happen in the great civilizations of the time: China, India, and Ottoman Turkish. Even when Westerners brought the groundbreaking telescope as gifts to these other civilizations, there were no already existing institutions to propel the telescope into all the other scientific discoveries that created the Western scientific revolution.

Huff made a strong case for understanding this element of the uniqueness of Western Civilization. Duchesne goes much further, painstakingly exploring the entire body of scholarly progressives who have dominated the past half-century of history, and brings back to life Indo-European Studies, a discipline that explains a great deal, both good and bad, that has made the West unique. …

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