There has been a lot of hot air about the proposed Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation which the Ramsay Institute for Western Civilisation would wish to see established at two or three universities in Australia. The term ‘western civilisation’ has been thrown around without any clear idea of what it means.
The problem is that the word ‘civilisation’, let alone western civilisation, is very difficult to define, not least because it is not so much a thing as something which develops over time.
We need to look more closely at what the Ramsay Centre is actually proposing. They are not proposing a degree which will chronicle some entity called ‘western civilisation’. It is not a history degree.
Rather, what Ramsay seem to be proposing is a degree which will have at its core the study of a number of central texts in what is broadly understood as ‘western civilisation.’ As I understand it, what texts will be studied will largely be determined by the institution which agrees to take on the degree although there are certain texts which obviously need to be included.
For example, the Bible will need to be there as it is so important to any understanding of the West. There will need to be Homer, some Greek tragedy, the great Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides as well as Plato and Aristotle. Roman authors would need to include Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Tacitus. One would hope that a late antique writer such as Boethius would also be there.
The classical tradition is central to western civilisation and this is demonstrated by the excellent The Classical Tradition published by Harvard University Press with Anthony Grafton as its lead editor.
What else should be included will be up to the people devising the curriculum. That would be a matter for those creating the curriculum but it should be understood that in such matters there are invariably more great authors than there are spots available. There would need to be a balance between medieval authors such as Dante, Renaissance writers including Shakespeare and more modern figures from Goethe to Flaubert to Thomas Mann.
The other issue is the breadth of the curriculum. Should it include, for example, material from the ancient Near East. Personally, I think that any such curriculum must include the Epic of Gilgamesh as it is the first great work of world literature.
Given the crucial importance of Jews and Judaism in the West one would also hope that this is recognised in any curriculum on western civilisation.
What about other works you might ask? What can be included as Western Civilisation? There are two points here worth making. One is that the West owes clear intellectual debts to other civilisations. Zero, perhaps the most single important invention in mathematics, comes from India.
Modern linguistics owes a considerable amount to the fact that the literature of Sanskrit includes very well developed grammatical theory and analysis. The Western philosophical tradition owes debts to Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina. In fact, a recent work argues that there was a central Asian ‘enlightenment’ in the second half of the first millennium.
The second is that one can only appreciate one’s own civilisation when it is placed in contrast to other civilisations. There is a good case for studying some texts from other civilisations alongside those from the West. These could include such works as Bhagavad Gita, the excellent poems of Chinese lyric poets such as Du Fu and the sublime poetry of the Sufi poet Rumi.
But such issues are for those who are going to create the curricula.
The other issue which has not been addressed are the very real problems of contemporary education. It is increasingly the case that students have short attention spans and need to be encouraged to read texts in a careful and analytical fashion.
What Ramsay proposes is a degree of which the core will consist of students engaging in close analysis of a number of key texts, reflecting on them and then spending time discussing those texts intensively in very small groups.
This is an exciting prospect for students who will have an extraordinary opportunity to flex their intellectual muscles. One hopes that for those students that they will be able to develop their cognitive capacities thereby countering some of the harmful effects which such things as social media have had on those capacities.
The debate about western civilisation has created a lot of noise. It would be a tragedy if this noise prevents students from having the opportunity both to engage with key texts from which they will learn a considerable amount and develop key capacities for analytical and critical thought.
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