According to a memorial resolution passed by the faculty senate in the late 90s for William Carroll Bark, former director of the History of Western Civilization (HWC) Program, HWC was for a time the most popular class at Stanford. The program ran from 1935 until the late 1960s, when the forces of “political correctness” caused support from students and administrators for the program to decline. This was unfortunate, as the Western Civ program reached over 40,000 students over its 34 years, exposing them not only to the history of the Western world but the history of Western ideas. I believe this knowledge of our own civilization is sorely lacking these days.
There are a couple of reasons why Western Civilization in particular should be studied. For example, no matter which end of the political spectrum you’re debating from, you’re undoubtedly coming from a Western perspective, since, speaking generally, Europe was the origin of our ideas on governance.
A capitalist, a Keynesian and a Marxist walk into a bar. They debate ideas that originated from and most greatly influenced the West. Just look at the birthplaces of their intellectual progenitors: Smith was from Kirkcaldy, Keynes was from Cambridge and Marx was from Trier.
It’s also hard to impugn the idea that the rise of the West was the most important story in history, at least when talking about the formation of our modern world. Property rights, consumerism, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution – all Western phenomena. Western medicine itself doubled and then more than doubled human life expectancy, atop slashing infant mortality, improving nutrition and eradicating diseases. To paraphrase Niall Ferguson, the West rose as a result of its institutions based on reason, and the “six killer apps” – competition, modern medicine, the consumer society, property rights, science and work ethic. A brief survey of history will show that empire was the least original thing the West ever did.
So obviously Western culture is unavoidable in the world today, especially as more and more countries adopt Western practices. But what about Stanford students in particular? Why should we care?
Well, first and foremost, we’re at a major research university, a model which had its origins in Germany. Secondly, there are few, if any, fields you can study here that aren’t either a direct result of Western civilization or viewed through a Western lens. Modern medicine is Western, so why not study its origins if you’re pre-med? You’ll begin to learn why certain ideas, practices or customs came about in the medical field, and walk away with a greater understanding about the history of your work. People involved in PoliSci, Public Policy and Econ in particular should be attuned to those subjects’ history. Issues might change, but ideas about the role of government, property, equality, etc. have been debated in the West since the Enlightenment. If we’re going to have a productive conversation about issues, we have to understand the fundamental ideas behind them.
Even on campus, think of the debates that would benefit from a little knowledge of history. Take standard of evidence in the Alternative Review Process. Why do we as a society value innocent until proven guilty? Well, it has its origins in Roman and Common law: “Ei incumbit probatio, qui dicit, non qui negat; cum per rerum naturam factum negantis probatio nulla sit.” (The proof lies upon him who affirms, not upon him who denies; since, by the nature of things, he who denies a fact cannot produce any proof.) It’s a very, very old maxim sacred to our society that shouldn’t be discarded lightly, even in the context of a university.
Additionally, our discussions about race and ethnicity affect the very foundations of our society, and not simply because our founding involved exclusionary principles. Is not equality under the law true equality? Or must we have equality of outcomes? We laud democracies, but what happens when they oppress minority groups? Is not the right to own property and the products of your labor more important than democracy? It’s all part of the debate opened by Plato’s “Republic” – what is justice?
And yet here at Stanford a student can go four years never having picked up “The Republic” or “Candide” or “The Wealth of Nations” or “Das Kapital” or any of those books that are the very foundation of philosophical wisdom, books that have contributed to the great Western conversation. I’m certainly not saying you should go become a history major or a classicist. Do what you love and go benefit the world with it.
But what I am saying is this: We need to be able to understand our civilization, which has both brought about the greatest standard of living in human history and caused unbelievable suffering. By doing so we can not only marvel at its successes, but begin to correct its shortcomings. I believe Stanford should not only do a greater job promoting the humanities, but should have a standard core curricula in the “Great Books” mold, exposing people to the most important ideas in our history.
Use the West’s least original invention to email Chris at [email protected]