Western Civilization

Institutions of higher learning have been much in the news lately, and generally not in a good way. So, when there are positive developments, they deserve to be recognized. The University of Texas at Austin has approved a new field of study in Western Civilization, which will be home to interdisciplinary courses with an emphasis on great books. Courses will cover ancient, medieval, and modern history, literature, philosophy, politics, and the arts.

Relatively few institutions offer courses any longer that integrate these disciplines. It is hard to find interdisciplinary courses, for example, on ancient Athens (including, for example, Homer, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides); the medieval mind (including, say, Augustine, Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio); the Age of Reason (e.g., Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Moliere, Racine); the Enlightenment (e.g., Fielding, Pope, Defoe, Sterne, Voltaire, Rousseau, Smith, Hume, Gibbon, Kant); or Romanticism (e.g., Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Stendhal). Just as Western Civ survey courses have largely disappeared (for reasons insightfully outlined here), interdisciplinary courses such as these have been victims of disciplinary specialization. They have survived in honors programs and in a few academic redoubts such as the University of Chicago. As that indicates, there is still a strong sense that they are outstanding components of an undergraduate education.

Here’s wishing the Western Civilization field of study—not to mention Western Civilization itself!—success and long life.

2 thoughts on “Western Civilization

  1. As a person who has been building training for more than 25 years, I find the most education is designed at the convenience of the instructor and has little to do with how people actually learn. Teaching subject by subject misses all the links and interactions between topics that happen in real life.

    On the other hand, I think there’s too much reverance paid to writers in eras when few people wrote much less read. Most of these writers had very little knowledge of the world let alone the universe. As a result, a lot of what they wrote simply doesn’t hold up any more. I read both Homer and Virgil in Latin class. Makes a nice story but not much more.

    Today, there are more 100,000 books published each year in English. I would guess that most people read less than 1/10 of 1% of those. I bet there’s a good book in the other 99.9%.

  2. Many people read Virgil in their Latin class; few read Homer: you’re unique.
    To be sure, the Greek Lyric poets, for example, didn’t know the physics of the universe, but they wrote extraordinarily beautiful stuff; reading beautiful literature is never out of date. Beauty can help refine and form the character.
    But it’s also true that we look to know the universe using methods of enquiry whose genesis is the ancient Greeks. Arisotle’s ethics is deeply relevant today. Thycidides is extraordinarily engaging. Imitating Cicero’s style will help you to learn how to write. Reading Plato helps you learn how to argue. Reading Aquinas is always useful both for learning to think ciritically and how to ask and respond to important questions. It seems to me that: a. not enough reverence is paid to “old writers”; b. if the number of persons writing and reading is relevant, it may be inversely relevant to the value of what’s written–when writing is difficult, the value of what is written may increase dramatically.

    A toast to U Texas for enriching, incomparably, the curriculum.

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