If We Want Western Civ Revitalized, We Can’t Leave It To Universities

If We Want Western Civ Revitalized, We Can’t Leave It To Universities By  for The Federalist

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.

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.

The Left Certainly Won’t Do It For Us

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.

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