A few days ago, I read with great interest Brett Rushforth’s comments on the decision by the history department at the University of Oregon (of which he is currently chair) to discontinue their “Western Civilization” survey courses and to end the practice of affording core curriculum and history major credit for AP World History. You can read his recap of the department’s rationale here.
Whether or not our colleagues have made the best decision here – and, as someone who has been jonesing to teach a Western Civilization survey for a long time, I felt a bit of a pang to read this news — they have certainly made a very principled and considered decision.
And they have made a very brave one. If the culture wars over the “Western canon” and “Western civilization” got ugly in the 1980s (and they certainly did), the backlash to a de-centering various notions of “the West” has become manifestly – that is, openly and proudly – monstrous, menacing, and even murderous now. Indeed, white supremacist terrorists who march into mosques or synagogues to kill in the name of “the West” or “Western civilization” are but the most extreme indicators that something is deeply wrong with the very concept they imagine they’re defending.
The concept itself – “Western civilization” as some coherent whole, with a continuous arc of intellectual and cultural development that traces the course of the sun from the Mediterranean East to the Euro-American West – is a fairly recent idea. In the United States it begins to crop up in the mid nineteenth century. But it doesn’t make its way into the undergraduate curriculum as a subject of instruction until the early 20thcentury. And of course it never really takes hold as a coherent or substantial field of research. There may be a couple of outlying PhD programs in “Western Civilization” – I haven’t tracked them down – but this is not a field of specialization in American universities. One might just as well argue that everything studied in American universities is automatically included within the compass of “Western civilization” simply by virtue of appearing in the catalog. And if everything is Western, then nothing really is. I think that’s what the white supremacists are actually afraid of.
In the coming months I’m going to be taking a rather deep dive into the discourse of “Western Civilization” – I have planned a whole chapter on the history of this concept, which will go a long way to explaining why the “canon wars” over Stanford’s reading list seemed like such a Big Deal at the time and have been invoked as a pivotal moment in the decades since. (First I need to wrap up this chapter on the history of the undergraduate curriculum in the United States as consistently manifesting a concern for practicality, from the days of the classical course to the free-for-all of the 1970s.)
I don’t know all of the turning points I’ll end up marking out in this “Civilization” chapter, but I do know that one of them will be the rise of the notion of “American civilization” – including the rise of the notion of “the rise of American civilization.” This means I will be spending some time with Charles and Mary Beard and their monumental work. I have obtained some decent copies of the first edition (though not the first printing) of The Rise of American Civilization, published in two volumes.
As you can see from the photos in this post, these were very handsome books, with gilded lettering on the spine and a small gilded medallion on the front cover, an abstract motif in imitation of Native American pottery designs from the desert southwest.
A different woodcut illustration appears at the head of each chapter in both volumes, and each chapter concludes with a smaller woodcut motif of unique design. The illustrations are the work of Wilfred Jones, a prolific artist and illustrator of the period. (You can read about Jones’s oeuvre in this digitized catalog from a 1977 exhibition of his work at the La Salle University Art Museum.)
But of course the showstopper among the illustrations for these books is the map spread over the endpapers, front and back. The color scheme and border design are reminiscent of a red Attic vase, a Grecian urn superimposed upon the American landscape. The large wagon train arcing across the middle of the map carries the viewer’s eye from east to west: the progress of civilization. In each region of the country different emblematic figures appear, from a southern belle to a Texas cowboy to a New England woodsman felling a tree.
But there is also an enslaved woman picking cotton, a Californio in a broad sombrero serenading a señorita who modestly holds up her fan, a pair of Chinese laborers, and next to two tipis a Sioux chieftain astride his horse. All these figures are contained within the national borders of the United States – Canada and Mexico are unpeopled, blank spaces counterbalancing the central motif of civilization’s progress. In the seas of black ink surrounding the land are sailing ships and a sporting sea monster, and a compass whose rays extend north, south and west – the line that would stretch to the east, to the Old World, is cropped from view. It must be imagined – or, perhaps, imagined away.
This was “American civilization” circa 1927, and that concept did attain a coherence and a prestige as a field of study in American universities that “Western civilization” did not. As I work my way through this chapter, it will be important to understand and to explain why that was the case.
But that this was and is the case means that, while “Western civilization” might come and go from the undergraduate catalog, “U.S. History I” and “U.S. History II” will hang around a while longer. At least I hope they do. I know a few scholars who find the survey problematic for philosophical, political, and pedagogical reasons, and I had at least one professor who flat out refused to teach it. I guess that’s what adjuncts are for.
In any case, I’ll be deeply immersed in the discourse of “civilization” for a while, and I hope our readers here will not just bear with me but also help me think these things through.
A key text in that regard, and one I will blog about next time I return to this theme, is Tommy J. Curry’s stunning, bracing, brilliant new book, Another white Man’s Burden: Josiah Royce’s Quest for a Philosophy of white Racial Empire. If you don’t have a copy, I encourage you to get one and read along with me.