Christianity and Western Civ

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of taking five Bethel University students to Mankato, Minnesota, where Bethany Lutheran College hosted the second annual Minnesota Undergraduate History Symposium. (#1 was at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul; #3 will be at Bethel next spring.)

It was good to hear our students and their peers from Bethany, Northwestern, and Martin Luther College share their research. (I live-tweeted the sessions I attended — #muhs2015 — or check out the highlights I posted this morning at our department blog.) But I also got to take part in the closing faculty panel on “Western Civilization and the Christian Liberal Arts,” alongside Jonathan Den Hartog (Northwestern) and David Sellnow (Martin Luther).

Session moderator (and symposium organizer) Ryan MacPherson of Bethany Lutheran asked us to address some or all of the following questions:

  • Is “Western Civilization” still worth teaching at Christian liberal arts colleges?
  • Is there any essential relationship between our understanding of Christianity and our understanding of Western Civilization?
  • Is the recent trend toward “Global History” a reaction against the Christian tradition, or an affirmation of the Great Commission?

I focused my remarks on the first two questions, drawing on my own experience teaching and directing Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course (CWC) and on a couple of famous examples of how “Western Civ” was constructed in American higher ed in the first half of the twentieth century.

First, some background on CWC:

  • It’s a first-year course at Bethel taken by about 70% of our traditional undergrads; the rest take a four-term Great Books sequence called Western Humanity in Christian Perspective.
  • We offer CWC as a face-to-face lecture-discussion course in fall and spring, a hybrid in our January term, and an online offering in summer.
  • While built around the outline of a one-semester Western Civ course (stopping with the Enlightenment), it incorporates church history and some philosophy and theology and is taught by scholars from those fields, plus the social sciences.
  • It (or Western Humanities) is a prerequisite for three subsequent categories in the “Global Perspectives” pillar of our general education curriculum.

What follows is a lightly edited version of my remarks.

* * * * *

I’ll affirm the value of CWC — in fact, I think it’s a signature course and have pushed to make it one of the few curricular requirements that needs to be taken at Bethel — but only as it is part of a curriculum. If it stood alone and we simply required all students to take one introductory history course, I’d have no hesitation replacing Western Civ with world history or — perhaps better — a global church history survey that paid as much attention to Latin America, Africa, and Asia as to Europe and North America.

To understand my tentative affirmation of a course like CWC, let me develop three points:

First, it’s important that we understand where “Western Civ” comes from. Setting to the side its roots in Victorian England (Jonathan helpfully touched on Matthew Arnold in his remarks), “Western Civ” within American higher ed began life at Columbia University in 1917-1918. In the midst of World War I, the U.S. government commissioned Columbia to develop a “War Issues Course” — meant to inculcate in members of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) the conviction that the U.S. was fighting a civilizational battle against Germany. “Its significance,” said Columbia College dean Herbert Hawkes of the War Issues Course, “rested on the fundamental principle that in the long run man’s accomplishment can rise no higher than his ideals, and that an understanding of the worth of the cause for which one is fighting is a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent man.”

Columbia SATC cadets with professors
SATC cadets with professors at Columbia University, 1918 (?) – Library of Congress

(For more context, I recommend Carol Gruber’s Mars and Minerva, which documents just how readily historians in those years bought into the war as a kind of civilizational crusade.)

After the armistice of November 1918, the course in 1919 became a “peace issues course” called “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West,” or simply “Contemporary Civilization” (CC). But whether war or peace, the DNA of Western Civ is encoded with a certain vision of America and its role in the world.

General Education in a Free Society (1945)In the interwar period, there were also significant courses at Stanford and the University of Chicago, but for my money, the most important document for the history of Western Civ is Harvard’s famous post-WWII statement, “General Education in a Free Society” (1945), described by Harvard president James Conant as an attempt to “consider ways and means by which a great instrument of American democracy can both shape the future and secure the foundations of our free society.” It called for a democratization of general education, with training in “the general art of the free man and the citizen” made available “to all [social classes] alike.”

Harvard’s committee proposed a required course called “Western Thought and Institutions.” While they nodded to Columbia’s CC course, the authors were clearly uncomfortable with its origins. Indeed, they went with the rather anodyne “Western Thought and Institutions” because they feared that their original title — “The Evolution of Free Society” — would mislead people into thinking it a kind of “indoctrination.”

The authors — the History Department was represented by Arthur Schlesinger — affirmed that Harvard ought to “[train] men in the nature of the heritage which they possess,” but they did “not believe that the course should be one which would attempt to convince students of the eternal perfection of existing ideas and institutions.” Indeed, “Any course which attempts to consider the nature of the Western heritage must raise more questions than it professes to answer.”

That’s closer to the spirit of CWC. Our semester, after all, starts with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which drinks deeply at the well of Western culture — in order to call out one of its most dehumanizing failures. While we have inherited a course founded for the purposes of national self-aggrandizement, if we promote the love of any earthly country, it’s the patriotism celebrated by Pres. Barack Obama earlier this year in Selma, Alabama: “…the belief that America [or, the West] is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical…”

Global Perspectives pillar in the general education curriculum of Bethel University
CWC is at the base of the Global Perspectives pillar (far right) in Bethel’s gen ed curriculum

So second, I’d underscore that our version of Western Civ is part of an interconnected curriculum meant to help Christian students live in the world without ever being of the world. In the first year, CWC happens alongside an introduction to Christianity and creative arts and study of a second language, and it sets up later courses in 19th/20th century history (with focus on U.S.), in-depth examination of a non-Western culture, and comparative analysis of competing intellectual, religious, or economic systems.

While CWC provides a base of knowledge for subsequent study of Western culture, especially in this country, it’s more important that it prompts students to critically examine a culture they think they already know well.

Which brings me, third, to the Christian liberal arts…

As we often say around Bethel, the Christian liberal arts are “liberating arts.” They are not primarily about inculcating a commitment to Western values or a love of America. They are rather about forming people who can more fully respond to the grace of God and live out their callings as disciples of Jesus Christ. As I wrote in a book on Pietism and higher education earlier this year, the nature of our liberal arts curriculum is that it helps to “[free] us from [what former Bethel president Carl Lundquist called] ‘the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness’ to choose to follow Christ, and to become our ‘unique and creative best for the glory of God.’”

So while Western Civ is born of an attempt to extend the power of an earthly kingdom, I value CWC because it prepares people to serve the kingdom of God — living in the West, but most definitely not of it.


4 thoughts on “Christianity and Western Civ

  1. I so much enjoyed team-teaching CWC at Bethel for 15 years. It was a new course in the “new curriculum” when I arrived in 1984 and serving on a team teaching it was part of my job description. Most often I was the “theologian” on whatever team I served with. However, I learned a lot about theology and history from my co-teachers. We had a lot of fun planning semesters, planning shared lectures, etc. We made every effort to make the course as diverse as possible including texts by women and non-Europeans and talking about them in our lectures. Still, we were criticized for (seriously) “honkifying” our African-American students (and others of non-European descent). This was during the time of the great debate in American higher education about multiculturalism and whether there actually exists a “canon” of great classics. Eventually the debate and controversy surrounding the course began to wear me down. It seemed that the only thing that would satisfy some critics was to abolish the course. I’m very glad to know that has not happened. The other thing that made the course not quite as enjoyable as it might have been was student behavior during lectures and in small groups. Most of the students were freshmen and they felt it was their right to read the newspaper, chat with others, etc. throughout our lectures. We bent over backwards to keep their attention with what I would call entertaining lectures. (I lectured on Luther AS Luther in constume and with a German beer mug in hand; I lectured on Barth AS Barth with an empty pipe in my mouth. When I was being Luther my co-teachers came into the room or stood up from among the students in costume as my opponents–Erasmus, Carlstadt, Eck, etc.–and debated me about “true reformation of the church.” Still, many of the students were rude during lectures and I did not feel supported by the administration in disciplining them (e.g., asking them to leave the room once they continued to chat out loud after being asked to stop). We (the teaching teams) struggled with student behavior more than anything else except making the course as multicultural as possible. Still, in spite of all that, my memories of “CWC” are fond ones–especially of working with my colleagues in teaching teams.

  2. Is it becoming common to not have something like your CWC even at liberal arts colleges? Does anyone think it would function better if adopted the way “writing across the curriculum” is? E.g., every course has an integrated writing/speaking (or in this case western civ) component? Done well it strongly reinforces student learning in a more interdisciplinary and communal way than discrete courses presided over by (typically the most junior members of) a single department.

    Your thoughts here reminded me how little I liked and learned in my own western civ experience as an undergrad — two mandatory courses coupled with a requirement for 2 British and/or American literature survey courses + old and new testament classes. (The general ed. core took 2 years to complete.) In retrospect, even though I was an English and History major, these introductory courses were generally poor and dis-integrated except when taught by seasoned professors and when students started to make the links themselves between the different courses. When that happened it was wonderful.

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