In Defense of the West

Opinion by Chris Herries
May 30, 2013, 10:19 a.m.

I’ve never written a follow-up to a column before, so bear with me. Last week I wrote about how Stanford should reinstate a History of Western Civilization core curriculum for all students. I envision it being four units per quarter for fall, winter and spring of freshman year, sufficient to construct a basic chronicle of Western history.

My argument is pretty simple. 1) We should have a core curriculum, though this is a different debate in and of itself. 2) That core curriculum should be a comprehensive survey of the most important formative ideas and histories in our society. 3) Therefore, as members of a Western society in an increasingly Westernized world, studying the history of the West is most beneficial.

Generally speaking, I got a good reception from the people I talked to about my column. I only received one email critiquing my view, which I replied to, while I received several supportive emails – even a couple from alumni from the 1930s who went through the program!

On the other hand, there was a lot of negativity in the online comments section. Very little of the criticism impugned my actual article and the three points listed above, but I’ll write a response about what I perceived to be the general tone.

The problem is, the centrality of Western culture offends the sensibilities of some people. Some people can’t handle the fact that history is a diamond with both beautiful and ugly facets. They hear “West” and immediately think imperialism, rather than thinking about medicine and liberal democracy. Citing human rights violations or UN conventions, they fail to realize that these ideas first cropped up and were debated in the Western world.

So yes, there are things wrong in today’s world that are a result of Western actions and ideas. At the same time, most of what’s right with the world is also Western – and that’s why people primarily immigrate to, and not from, Western and Westernized countries.

This duality is nothing short of reality. The West is a dynamic civilization; it’s where communism and capitalism, democracy and fascism, all fought their battles. To boil it down as absolutely good or absolutely evil denies the reality of this dynamism.

To prove the point, I’ll share one of the more misguided comments. After claiming the West has nothing to do with his civilization, the commenter said, “The ‘West’ is an outdated concept in the 21st century and a tradition that only imperialists and racists wish to continue. Absolutely nothing that happened in Germany or France or Switzerland 300 years ago is part of ‘my’ civilization.”

I’ll ignore that fact that the commenter essentially called me a racist. But, really? Nothing from the Enlightenment has anything, anything at all, to do with your civilization? The Scientific Revolution hasn’t advantaged you at all? Imperialism hasn’t shaped the country you live in? Time to grow up. Even if this commenter isn’t American, there isn’t a country on Earth untouched by the events in Europe 300 years ago, for good or for ill.

But it is exactly this level of willful, almost proud, ignorance that prompts me to advocate for courses in Western history. How can you possibly tackle the problems of today if you think that past has nothing to do with them?

There is a point I do need to clarify, as a friend of mine pointed out. His claim was that I made it seem as if other civilizations, and other histories, are devoid of value. It’s not that no other civilization is important; it’s that no other civilization is as important as the West in assessing the current state of our society and, frankly, the world. If we want a comprehensive survey relevant to modern society, then we should have courses in Western history. If we were a Chinese university, I imagine it would be most fruitful to study Asian civilizations. But we’re rooted firmly in the United States, a country formed of Western institutions, ideas and debates.

Naturally, cultural diffusion happens. Absorption, permeability, borrowing: all historical factors. Of course it’s important to study how the West influenced and was influenced by other groups – that’s part of studying Western history! But I’d still firmly argue that focusing primarily on ideas originating or formalized in the West would be most beneficial for Stanford students being turned out into the world.

If you take anything from this series, whether you agree with the argument or not, let it be this question. Are you happy with your education? Personally, I don’t think IHUM and Thinking Matters are the best we can do. I think Stanford students should walk out of here knowing the significance of the Magna Carta, Das Capital, The Wealth of Nations, Candide, The Republic, and more.

Not only should we be familiar with texts like these; we should also be aware of how they continue to inform debates today. Are you an “activist” who gets fired up over a series of statistics, or are you an educated individual familiar with the ideas that have crafted our society? Are you going to be a doctor with no knowledge outside the field of medicine, and therefore less able to comprehend how it interacts with society? Are you going to join the ranks of policymakers, economists or soldiers and be oblivious to our history? I hope you enter into our civilization with the ability to change it for the better. Part of that is learning the historical ideas at its very foundation.

Email Chris with your thoughts and comments at [email protected].

Chris Herries is a sophomore majoring in Latin. His interests include rugby, crossfit, weiqi, and public service. Please shoot him an email if you have an issues with his articles.

Login or create an account