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Western civilization is a historical concept with a recent origin and uncertain future. The term became a secular equivalent in the United States to “Latin Christendom,” but it never took firm hold in Europe, where national differences loomed too large. As globalization advances, the separateness of local civilizations blurs; historians, reflecting their times, have begun to emphasize transcivilizational connections while questioning the coherence of Western or any other regional civilization.
The word civilization entered English from the French in the late eighteenth century, and initially meant polite behavior, just as it did in French. It referred to manners that permitted a person to find his or her proper place in polite society; that meant using words and gestures to defer to superiors, snub inferiors, and climb as high as one could by peaceable means. Bearing, conversation, and clothing all mattered; so did wealth, and familiarity with art, literature, and music also helped to improve a person’s claim to be civilized. It differed from older courtly ideals inasmuch as no monarch set the tone or conferred formal rank. Civilization instead was an urban upperclass phenomenon whose exact definition evolved in accordance with prevailing opinions among those who participated in polite society.
To begin with, such behavior was conceived as potentially universal. To be sure, civilization was most perfectly expressed in Parisian drawing rooms, theaters, and other public places, with London a close rival. But privileged urban circles in Germany, Russia, and other European countries did their best to imitate French manners, often going so far as to read and speak French and import the latest fashions from Paris. This sort of “civilization,” however contagious it proved to be, was limited to narrow elites, even within France itself. Even before the eighteenth century ended, a reaction set in among Germans, some of whom preferred to believe that their language and culture embodied a unique spirit that was incompatible with French “civilized” ways of thinking and acting.
Early in the eighteenth century, patriotic Germans persuaded themselves that German Kultur was intrinsically superior to French civilization, and Russian Slavophils soon argued for the superiority of the Slavic soul over more westerly versions of Kultur and civilization. Meanwhile in France and England, easy and rapid imperial expansion in Africa and Asia seemed evidence of their superiority to other peoples; and the term civilization was broadened to describe the achievements of British, French, and European society as a whole. French and British empires were the most extensive, and both countries were situated in Western Europe; but no one made much of that geographical detail. (The words West/Western as cultural entities are typically capitalized, while west/western as geographic distinctions are commonly lowercase.) Before World War I, by and large, civilization was conceived as unitary, centered in Europe, and destined to illuminate and eventually improve the lives of other peoples in colonial (and ex-colonial lands like the United States) as they learned the skills and style of civilized behavior from contacts with civilized Europeans.
This intellectual landscape altered abruptly during World War I. In particular, the concept of Western civilization came to the fore in the English- speaking world when defense of “Western civilization” against the attacking Germans became a theme of British propaganda. In an incautious moment, Kaiser Wilhelm actually told his troops to mimic the fury of the Huns; by calling German soldiers “Huns,” British propagandists were able to confuse the obvious fact that Germans shared Western European civilization and made them out to be barbarians from the East. To be sure, concepts of West–East polarity had antecedents going all the way back to Herodotus who had contrasted free Greeks on the western side of the Aegean Sea with enslaved Persians coming from the east. And British war propaganda rejuvenated that motif by celebrating British and French “liberty” as against Germany’s imperial, aristocratic and wickedly aggressive government. When the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson chimed in by claiming his government’s purpose was to make the world safe for democracy.
After 1918, these wartime follies were soon abandoned in Britain and France, but not without some sense of shame. Throughout Europe, separate nationalistic histories, elaborated during the nineteenth century, continued to dominate classrooms in schools and universities. Accordingly, differences among the countries and peoples of Europe seemed more significant than “Western” or any other sort of shared civilization. Instead each nation treasured its own grievances against neighbors and cherished its own claims to greatness. Conviction of European superiority to Asians and Africans persisted, but that was based more directly on skin color than on such an intangible as Western civilization.
Western “Civ” Enters College
In the United States, however, the concept of Western civilization had a far more significant career. Courses in Western civilization were invented during World War I to explain to draftees what they were fighting for. These survived the war in a few American colleges, and spread widely in the 1930s, supplementing American national history and becoming required introductory courses for a great many students. Western “civ” courses retained that privileged status until the 1960s or later so that a whole generation of college students acquired a modest familiarity with ancient, medieval, and modern European history, and the belief that they were heirs of that past. This was accompanied by almost total ignorance of the history of the four-fifths of humankind excluded from Western civ courses.
Reasons for this curricular development are not far to seek. American national history was too brief to connect directly with ancient Greece and Rome, the staple of humanistic higher education as transmitted to the country’s Founding Fathers. Filling the gap with British history was acceptable to many Americans of English and Scottish descent, but Americans whose ancestors had come from other parts of Europe wanted a broader-based past and found it in “Western civilization” courses. And by annexing Western civilization to their own national history, Americans achieved a grander, more inclusive cultural ancestry than any single European country could boast.
There was a second and in many ways more powerful intellectual impetus behind Western civilization courses as they came on stream in the 1930s. Most college-bound Americans had learned a smattering of Biblical history in Sunday school, and the Christian (and Jewish) view that God governed the course of events was firmly implanted in their minds. But ever since the eighteenth century, a contrary liberal Enlightenment view of history had taken root in a limited intellectual circle, according to which the progress of liberty was what mattered most, and liberation from religious error by recognizing historical causes with which God had nothing to do was part of the story.
Western civ courses offered a splendid opportunity to juxtapose these rival worldviews. By pitting Reason against Faith, “Saint Socrates” against Saint Paul, such courses spoke to central concerns of generations of students. Choosing to focus on a few great books, works of art, and big ideas—and showing how they changed from age to age—introduced college students to aspects of the Western cultural heritage and invited them to pick and choose what to accept and what to reject from it. As such, Western civ courses came alive for innumerable college students and helped them to shape a meaningful world from which the majority of humankind was tacitly excluded.
By the 1960s this constellation of circumstances altered, and Western civ courses soon lost their preferred place in most American colleges. Their dismantlement arose mainly from the discontent of young instructors who objected to teaching hand-me-down Western civ instead of presenting their own up-to-date specialized fields of research, as tenured professors preferred to do. Since tenure depended on published research it was clear that teaching Western civ delayed professional advancement. Tenured professors could not deny that obvious fact, so such courses had few defenders and most of them were soon scrapped.
Changes on the religious scene also contributed to making them obsolete. Decaying Sunday School training deprived Western civ courses of their earlier intellectual bite for some students, and a contrary current of born-again religious commitment made secular history unwelcome to others. Efforts to expand the scope of Western civ to embrace the rest of the world remained weak and sporadic and have not yet become really respectable in the eyes of most academic historians. Instead, industrious researchers multiplied specialties, making national history more and more incoherent, and calling the validity of every sort of statement about large-scale history into ever more serious question.
The collapse of European empires after World War II and widespread rejection of claims to any sort of ethnic, racial, or cultural superiority was a third factor that undermined the legitimacy of Western civ courses. And as students of non-European descent began to show up in college classrooms, efforts to accommodate them by teaching Amerindian, Asian, Latin American, and African history multiplied. Multiple civilizations, all conceived as equal and separate, became fashionable; and when outsiders intruded, as Europeans had done so obviously in the nineteenth century, they were often blamed for it. Western civ thus became something of a bogeyman—the exact opposite of what American undergraduates had been brought up to believe between 1930 and l960.
Further transformations of American historical teaching no doubt lie ahead. Western civ is likely to continue to play a conspicuous part as it has since the 1930s, because how to fit Europe as a whole and Western Europe in particular into the recent history of the world remains so problematic. Yet the whole concept of Western civilization as an entity acting in world affairs is uncertain. Structuring world history around separate civilizations became commonplace after Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–1922) and Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934–1961) did so. But as globalization advances, the separateness of local civilizations blurs, and historians, reflecting their times, have begun to emphasize larger, transcivilizational connections, while simultaneously questioning the coherence of Western or any other regional civilization.
- Spengler, O. (1922). The decline of the west (C. F. Atkinson, Trans.) (2 vols.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Toynbee, A. J. (1987). A study of history (12 vols.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
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