The main reason Western civilization, with an emphasis on “Great Books,” deserves a prominent—indeed, the prominent—place in the curriculum of the Christian university is stewardship: This study is how we lay claim to our rightful inheritance of wisdom, nobility, and gracefulness…
For many Americans, the onset of fall means pumpkin-spice lattes and cozy sweaters. For me, for my colleagues, and for 500 or so sophomores at our university, it means Dante. In early October of each year, we make our pilgrimage through Hell, up Mt. Purgatory, and into the highest Heaven. Our annual reading of the Divine Comedy is a central part of our course in Western civilization, a team-taught effort totaling fifteen credit-hours spread over three semesters and covering the cultural and political history of the West from Ancient Greece up to the day before yesterday. This journey is nearly as arduous as the pilgrim Dante’s guided tour of the afterlife. Why do it? With students increasingly majoring in pre-professional programs that demand ever more credit-hours to satisfy accrediting agencies and professional bodies, how can we justify giving fifteen hours to the study of “Western civ.”? Under pressure from a culture that demands college lead directly to financial stability, how can we justify a core curriculum so extravagantly “impractical”? In an age in which “diversity” has become the supreme value in higher education, how can we justify devoting so much time solely to the West? Simple. A robust education in the cultural foundations and traditions of the Western world is the only way to rescue students from the chronological provincialism that so severely stunts contemporary hearts and minds, a goal that should be a first priority for a Christian institution of higher learning.
Imagine a beautiful garden in the midst of a gray, industrial, bleak city. The city’s architecture is functional only, given totally to the making of money or to the most ephemeral, when not downright base, forms of entertainment. This city is all big box store and mega-super-cinema-plex. But the garden is lovely, lush, and inviting. It is full of beautiful growth and well-crafted stonework. It is a place for true recreation and joyful exercise. And it is ancient, passed down through generations of city-dwellers as a place of relief and regeneration.
What would you think of the generation that let that garden die?
What would you think of a people who intentionally destroyed it?
In short, the main reason Western civilization, with an emphasis on “Great Books,” deserves a prominent—indeed, the prominent—place in the curriculum of the Christian university is stewardship. We have inherited a garden full of wisdom—and a few thorns—and it is incumbent upon us to maintain and cultivate it for the wisdom, even if we must warn visitors to be careful of the thorns. Following in the footsteps of the ancients, medieval Christian philosophers identified three “transcendentals” that point us toward God: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We study the history and literature of Western civilization in order to see these transcendentals at play in our own cultural heritage; to appreciate the ways in which those who came before us have striven for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful; and to better understand how that quest for transcendence has been limited and impinged upon by sin and the reality of a fallen world. We study Western civilization because there is much in it that is edifying and because there is much in it that is tragic. This study is how we lay claim to our rightful inheritance of wisdom, nobility, and gracefulness. Through study, we become stewards of our culture.
Of course, we want the garden to be there should anyone wish to recreate in it, but we also want it to be there because we know that keeping a garden in the midst of the city nudges the whole city, if only slightly, garden-ward. The very existence of a garden at the center of a city can subtly change the character of that city. The city that makes room for a garden in its center makes room for flower boxes in its windows and even trees along its streets. Perhaps it is impossible to provide a robust cultural education for all students at all institutions. That impossibility, however, should not cause us to demolish the whole garden. Its beauty, if left intact, will spread outward. The exercise some receive there will make them examples to others to pursue such exercise as is possible in their part of the city. Only a society of utter barbarians would destroy a beautiful garden simply because “not enough people” could avail themselves of it.
The value of the garden is most apparent in its perennials and in its old stonework. If we view Western history as a civilization’s struggle—full of both triumph and failure—to attain to truth, goodness, and beauty, then it is most valuable when study of it is both deep and long. Students need exposure to the long, if cracked then fairly unbroken, chain of thought, feeling, and experience we call “Western civilization.” No other course of study so cures them of chronological provincialism, so saves them from being what Edmund Burke called “the flies of a summer.” This ability to dwell in the fullness of time is surely part of what our Creator wants to encourage in us when, generations after the men He is referring to lived, He described Himself to Moses as “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:15). Recalling this phrase, which appears several times in the Old Testament, Jesus himself tells us “He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). For those who take seriously the resurrection of the dead and the Biblical view of time, the past is always present. Failing to see the present in terms of the past is failing to see at all.
Of course, this wider perspective enables the student to think about contemporary problems with a greater perspective, but, perhaps more importantly, it also uncramps their souls. Knowledge of Western civilization—a true knowledge of its change and continuity over time—gives the student room to breathe intellectually, morally, spiritually, and emotionally. It frees the student from the tyranny of the moment, from merely fashionable, inevitably superficial ways of being in the world. Life in the fullness of time is a life more abundant than living in the prison of the moment.
A hodge-podge of “cultural credits” sprinkled as a concession throughout an otherwise utilitarian education will not accomplish this goal of transforming students into citizens of Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” This transformation from an inhabitant of the narrow moment to a dweller in the fullness of time takes an experience we might call “immersive.” It takes semesters of study in a coherent and contiguous plan. The study of the West offers this.
Students, and everyone else, should, of course, learn about other cultures. Let them take classes on Buddhism in India, on Tang Dynasty Chinese poets, on the Mali Empire in Africa. But let these be in addition to, not at the expense of, the sustained, robust, multi-semester study of the West. Let us not cheapen the noble goal of exploring world cultures by pretending that three hours in Polynesian folklore is as good as fifteen hours in Western civilization, when we really just want to open up twelve more hours for the study of management or sports nutrition. For, obviously, it is not a question of “Western Civ. or World Civ.” There is no “world civilization,” and trying to offer it as an alternative to study of Western civ. just means cutting up the world’s many fascinating and deep civilizations into a reductive smattering of offerings competing for the student’s attention. Is it somehow better, in the name of equity, to do an injustice to five civilizations within our core curriculum rather than do a reasonable amount of justice to one? Only Kurt Vonnegut’s Diana Moon Glampers would think so.
Of course, one might then say why not develop a deep sense of time by offering a fifteen-hour core in say, Chinese civilization or Indian civilization or African civilization? In which case we instantly see the absurdity in asking all students, as opposed to only majors in comparative literature or anthropology, at an American university to devote such a huge amount of time to a civilization that does not constitute the immediate context of the educational institution in which they are studying. In other words, Western Civilization belongs in the core because this is the West. The Western tradition gave rise to the university as we know it. The Western tradition also gave rise to the political world as we know it. As Russell Kirk pointed out in his Enemies of the Permanent Things, one very good reason to study the Bible, Cicero, Virgil, Shakespeare, and others is that our founding fathers studied them and utilized what they learned there in framing the Republic that is our political heritage. In the West, our political foundations, our artistic foundations, and our theological foundations are rooted in the great conversation we call the Western tradition. If we do not know this tradition, then we do not know ourselves and truly are “the flies of a summer.”
At a Christian university, we encourage students to live fully in time also because the story of Western civilization is largely the story of the rise, triumph, and decline of a distinctly Christian culture. A good study of Western civilization begins with a thorough study of Greek and Roman antiquity, along with a thorough reading of and study of the Old Testament and its people. The student cannot understand the meaningful synthesis of the Christian and classical worlds unless he has a thorough understanding of antiquity on its own terms. Additionally, seeing the thoughts and questions of the Church anticipated by Socrates and Sophocles, for instance, is a powerful lure out from the narrowness of the moment to gain a better perspective on the fullness, the awe-inspiring breadth of God’s truth. Overall, we cannot understand the human condition into which Christ is incarnated if we do not look deeply into the Greek and Roman past.
Then the student is ready for the early church, the middle-ages, the Renaissance and Reformation. To study these things is for the Christian student to see what the Church, what the coming of Christ, has wrought not just in the individual spirit but in the whole of a cultural unity we call “the West.” From there, the student turns to the “Enlightenment,” modernity, and postmodernity to form a solid understanding of Western culture as, in C.S. Lewis’ phrase, “post-Christian.”
None of these important goals can be met if we treat the core curriculum as something to do with our “left-over” hours. If a Christian university cannot manage a robust core in the great tradition while it meets the demands of professional programs, then it is obligated to abandon those professional programs. The world, indeed, needs nurses, engineers, and lawyers; and it will, with or without the Christian university, have them. It also needs men and women of sensibility, people who dwell in the fullness of time, and these it is unlikely to have without institutions of higher learning firmly committed to the Christian intellectual tradition and to the serious stewardship of the cultural past and present. When the Christian university spends its time and resources scuttling after utilitarian, materialist educational trends, we trivialize our important role as stewards of the culture. We fail in our duty to care for “the permanent things.”
Our students come to us from all around the country and from across the world, from big cities and small towns. Almost all of them, however, are chronologically provincial. If we are to do what we say we will—this is, educate them—then we must broaden their sense of time. We must make available for them the cultural and intellectual heritage valued by every learned person in the West up until the postmodern age.
Dante is not sent alone into the afterlife. He has Virgil, the great Roman poet, to guide him. Virgil comes to him in the dark woods in which Dante is lost. Let us pray it doesn’t come to us. Let us offer our students a garden in which to meet Virgil. We owe them such instructive and enriching friendships with the dead.
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