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The ongoing decay of modern Western civilization is self-induced. It arises from the hatred of our current intelligentsia for their heritage. Formerly, highly educated people extolled the virtues of the West; today it is the mark of great learning to denounce those virtues. In university "Arts" departments, the moral foundations of the West have been steadily eroded by deconstructionism and kindred ideologies.
Article originally appeared in
Older writers can help us understand this change. The late Paul Goodman was a strident critic of 1950s–1960s society. He pulled no punches in attacking the military-industrial complex and much else. Yet his attack on the America of Eisenhower and Kennedy was not an attack on Western civilization as such. Here is what he wrote in a very good old book, Compulsory Mis-education (1964):
The culture I want to teach—I . . . cannot think or strive apart from it—is our Western tradition: the values of Greece, the Bible, Christianity, Chivalry, the Free Cities of the twelfth century, the Renaissance, the heroic age of Science, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, early nineteenth century Utilitarianism, late nineteenth century Naturalism.
. . . The Greeks sometimes aspire to a civic excellence in which mere individual success would be shameful. The Bible teaches that there is a created world and history in which we move as creatures. Christians have a spirit of crazy commitment because we are always in the last times. Chivalry is personal honor and loyalty, in love or war. Free Cities have invented social corporations with juridical rights. The Renaissance affirms the imperious right of gifted individuals to immortality. Scientists carry on a disinterested dialogue with nature, regardless of dogma or consequence. The Enlightenment has decided that there is a common sensibility of mankind. The Revolution has made equality and fraternity necessary for liberty. Utilitarian economy is for tangible satisfactions, not busy-work, money, or power. Naturalism urges us to an honest ethics, intrinsic in animal and social conditions.
. . . these familiar propositions are often in practical and theoretical contradiction with one another; but that conflict too is part of the Western tradition.
In response to Goodman's list, the contemporary educator would say something like this: "The Greeks—sexist. The Bible—sexist and homophobic. Christianity—sexist, homophobic, and guilty of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Science—betrays a masculine, domineering, destructive attitude to nature. And the rest—spawned by dead white males, hence patriarchal."
For the modern intellectual, Western civilization can do almost nothing right. It deserves close to complete condemnation. Western people should feel guilty for being Western. They should repent in sackcloth and ashes for their loyalty to the traditions derived from Athens and Jerusalem and medieval Europe. They should cut out their own intellectual and moral hearts.
This project is already well underway in North American schools. It is almost impossible now to take Latin in a public high school. The graduate who knows anything about Socrates or Augustine is rare. History, beyond parochial history (American or Canadian), is not stressed; in how many jurisdictions is even a single survey course on Western history (say, from Greece to the Enlightenment) compulsory for high-school graduation? And in how many high schools is twelfth-grade English filled (as it was in my day) with Victorian novels, Romantic poets, and Shakespeare? Today's students are immersed in the contemporary, by deliberate policy. The past, after all, has almost nothing admirable in it.
Am I saying that there is nothing wrong with Western civilization? No, and neither was Goodman. He was a gadfly to the modern West as Socrates was to Athens. He was no shallow triumphalist. But unlike today's critics, Goodman loved the Western culture he was criticizing. He wanted to improve it, not destroy it. Our kids deserve teachers with that motive. •
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