An extensive National Review cover article by Andrew Roberts asserts that “we must teach Western Civilization.” He is correct that Western Civ should be taught, and not just as an exercise in the self-flagellation of critical theory. But studying our cultural heritage without living it is only intellectual embalming, and some champions of Western civilization may prefer it that way. Preserving Western Civilization requires living it.
This distinction between information about a tradition and living it is obvious in religion, in which study does not in itself instill belief. Unlike instruction at the local parish school, a secular college’s religious studies course is not meant to inculcate Catholic belief and behavior, even if it is accurate about Catholic doctrines.
Intellectual knowledge is severable from practice, and this applies to the rest of the Western tradition, from art and architecture to literature and philosophy. In all of these, knowledge without works is dead, and universities teaching about them may be no more than museum tours of the intellectual and artistic artifacts of the past. Wisdom becomes knowledge, and knowledge declines into information.
To be sure: studying these subjects may provide historical perspective and awaken a love for aspects of Western culture in some students. But the undifferentiated teaching of Western Civ may also endorse a Nietzschean perspective. Western Civ is full of intellectual and aesthetic arguments, and teaching about them without taking sides sets the student above them in judgment, even though the student by definition lacks the capability to judge well between them. Western culture becomes material for the self-creation and connoisseurship of the individual, a collection of parts to be used or discarded at will.
Most conservatives do not intend to endorse individualist relativism when they urge the teaching of Western Civ in higher education. They want to ensure a basic knowledge of, and appreciation for, our cultural heritage. But a generic Western Civ has limited power to inspire, and classroom instruction without an experiential connection and application is easily ignored or quickly forgotten, and the fragments that remain are fodder for idiosyncratic individual enjoyment, rather than an integrated life.
Furthermore, it is foolish of conservatives to beg the liberals, leftists, and radicals who dominate academia to do our work of cultural preservation for us. We should be less concerned with getting elite universities to rededicate themselves to teaching the Western heritage, and more focused on making Western culture a reality in our lives.
Civilizational vitality depends on popular participation. Western culture must be passed on through pedagogy and practices that begin long before the deans of diversity and inclusion can get involved, and continue long after their domain has ended. Instead of intellectual tourism for college students, the Western heritage must be instantiated throughout family and community life.
Religion is the obvious example of how the vital traditions of Western civilization may be passed down without help from higher education. The Jewish and Christian religions are the heart of the West, and they are sustained despite the indifference and even hostility of most of the academic world. Outside of sectarian colleges that take their religion seriously, the flame of faith on campus is not kept burning by official university-sponsored events or religious studies courses, but in voluntary campus ministries and the hearts of students dedicated to their faith.
Churches also have an outsized role in passing on Western culture beyond religious belief. Churches are where many people most often encounter the ideas and art of the Western tradition. Sermons promulgate theology and intersect with history and philosophy, and congregations have a great store of Christian culture to drawn on as they play music and commission and maintain art and architecture. Not every church does this, or does it well, but many do.
Many other institutions and associations play a part in vitalizing the Western heritage, but nothing may be more important than family and friends sharing, and instilling in the young, a love for the great achievements of Western civilization.
Substitute Hard Work for Entertainment
Fortunately, these cultural adornments have never been more accessible. From music to literature to art to philosophical and religious texts, it is available with a few clicks, often for free. Lectures and podcasts by professors and talented amateurs are available about everything from history to physics.
We carry devices that allow us to read the philosopher or poet of our choice while listening to scintillating performances such as Hilary Hahn playing Bach or Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Mozart. Those of us who play instruments have a wealth of music to practice and online instruction to learn from. Pictures of great art and architecture are easily accessed, and quality prints of our favorite masterpieces are available and affordable.
Although the treasures of Western civilization are more available than ever before, they often can’t be given away—just compare the YouTube views for great classical music performances to whatever is trending. And many of us who pontificate about the glories and indispensability of Western civilization are among the offenders, as we often do not practice what we preach.
It is easier to demand that someone else preserve our cultural heritage than to do so ourselves. Inertia is hard to overcome, and working through great philosophy, art, or music can feel like a self-improvement grind, despite genuine enjoyment. For example, noodling around in G major is easier than learning to play Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major, even though the latter is more rewarding.
This is be exacerbated by viewing culture as a form of private enjoyment to be consumed. But while culture has private aspects, it is intrinsically interpersonal. What we love, we share, especially with our children. Books are meant to be read, art is meant to be seen and heard, architecture to be inhabited, and all are meant to be part of our shared life together.
Likewise, although musicians of every skill level practice on our own, and it is possible to play only for private enjoyment, most of us want to come together to play with and for others. While many of us may aspire to little more than competence in playing hymns on Sundays, this still helps preserve a heritage and culture of sacred music while providing a foundation for those who may achieve more.
Likewise, our religious and philosophical heritage is not only directed toward personal redemption and edification but also to identifying and instantiating the shared goods of our common life. We philosophize to live well together, and religion teaches us how we are to live in communion with others. But these efforts toward the common good illuminate a difficulty faced by champions of a generalized Western civilization, which is that the Western heritage is divided against itself—even the current cultural self-rejection fashionable in academia is a product of the West.
Although Western Civ survey courses may cultivate detached appreciation, living Western Civ means taking sides, often passionately, in many of its disputes. Thus, the revitalization of Western culture will also reignite internecine conflicts. If Western civilization matters to people, they will be willing to fight over it, as well as for it.
In aesthetic areas, this may mostly produce bickering, but in politics, philosophy and religion, which concern life and death, salvation and perdition, the stakes are greater. Teaching about the disagreements on these subjects is safe, but people who want to live according to these disparate ideas may be dangerously fractious.
Thus, the conservative focus on restoring survey courses to campus may reflect an ambivalence about the risks of reversing cultural decadence, and a fear that strong loves and strong gods might be dangerously illiberal. For instance, in his National Review article, Roberts sometimes seems to hold a grudge against medieval Christianity and at other times seems uncertain whether Western civilization has an essence beyond “democracy.” Cathedrals may be beautiful, but the believers who built them were not modern enlightened liberals.
Focusing on ecumenic overviews of prior achievements may reflect this tension between a desire to revitalize Western culture, and temerity regarding the passions and perils of a living civilization. Western civilization may be good, but it is not safe. In contrast, museums are safe. They are also dead.