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.
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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.”
(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.
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…”
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.