Western Civilization: The Importance of Shared History
Updated: Jan 24
It is my privilege and challenge to lead our College Prep Humanities Class. This year we are studying Western Civilization, basically early Medieval through the Enlightenment. This winter for the Semester Portfolio I challenged my advanced students to make a defense of Western Civ in our increasingly CRT (Critical Race Theory) world, framed around an inspiring quote by Washington Post columnist George Will. This essay is by senior Grace Jacott, a gifted writer, thinker and scholar. If JR students are trained to think critically of the modern cultural narrative, then this essay is a trophy on our shelves! Enjoy a challenging read by a young lady bold enough to stand up for classical ideas.
Western Civilization: The Importance of Shared History By Grace Jacott, Class of 2023
“Identity politics is an ideology, the core tenet of which is this: Because all standards for judging cultures are themselves culture-bound, it is wrong to “privilege” Western culture and right to tailor curricula to rectify the failure to extend proper “recognition” and “validation” to other cultures. It attacks individualism by defining people as mere manifestations of groups (racial, ethnic, sexual) rather than as self-defining participants in a free society. And one way to make racial, ethnic, or sexual identity primary is to destroy alternative sources of individuality and social cohesion, such as a shared history, a common culture, and unifying values and virtues. This explains their attempts to politicize and purge education curriculums” (George Will).
Without studying Western Civilization, people would miss many role models and cautionary tales. By limiting the scope of learning to minorities, quite simply, the majority is missed. If historic figures are forced into groups and stereotypes, they would lose their value as individual heroes and examples. Western people only learning about minorities deprives them from learning about their own shared experiences and history. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). This concept of not learning from past cultures is seen in modern students, who are repeating the theological and political mistakes of prior eras, being brainwashed into a group mentality without the concept of individualism. If this trend of identity politics in curriculum continues, a future generation will be left bereft of positive role models, ignore their past, and continue in a downward spiral of morality.
Role Models in Western Civilization
Henry V was one of the most well-known English kings of the middle ages. He was popular enough to have a Shakespeare play written about him, so he is immortalized in literature. He was a paragon of virtue for the Medieval world, at least for those he did not go to war with. He was mature, having learned quickly from his father’s death: “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness, mortified in him, seemed to die too” (Shakespeare Ii 27-29). Henry was a great ruler, although perhaps exaggerated by Shakespeare. It is important to study and understand him, since he was a moral hero of the Medieval Era and should be regarded as such.
Many people have heard of Charlemagne and view him as a great leader, but if he is studied well he is regarded even better as a man who truly wanted to learn: “For we desire you to be devout in mind, learned in discourse, chaste in conduct and eloquent in speech” (Rogers 222). Charlemagne was an amazingly learned man as well as a magnificent king. Without an in depth study of Western Civilization, the intricacies of Charlemagne’s rule and character would be lost. It is imperative to learn about the religious background of many Medieval rulers, since it was often what made them make the choices they did.
One of the most strict moral codes of the Medieval era was the Benedictine rule for monks. Benedictine monks were restricted in every aspect of life, in the interest of keeping them only for God, rather than for themselves. Monks could not even have personal property: “monks are not to own even their own bodies and wills to be used at their own desire, but are to look to the father of the monastery for everything” (Benedict 250). Although this is potentially too harsh, the idea of generosity is one which needs to be re-learned in today’s society. Learning from the past is important, especially when it is a concept being abandoned now. Benedictine monks are an excellent source to learn from and would be overlooked without studying western civilization.
The idea in western society of the hero being a role model to younger generations and passing his wisdom on is being rejected today with the idea of anti-heroes and carving a person’s own path, regardless of what their ancestors or culture did.
In the epic poem Beowulf, the protagonist whom the epic is named after had a sort of son-like character, called Wiglaf. The bond between Beowulf and Wiglaf speaks to how important that multi-generational relationship is, since Beowulf hands off his kingdom to Wiglaf: “I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs. I can hold out no longer” (Heaney 1795-2801). In modern times, people are rejecting the idea of older people having learned wisdom, as well as not learning how to lead people. The world is slowly running out of good leaders, and people need to learn about older leaders to see what makes a good leader in the first place. Western Civilization teaches people about many great rulers, as well as some not-so-good ones, helping them to identify traits in their own leaders.
Another moral ideal well-known in the Middle Ages was the concept of chivalry. Knights, the soldiers and gentlemen of the Medieval era, were expected to adhere to this code. It had specific elements, but was more of an ideal for them to strive towards, saying their duties were “to defend the church, to assail infidelity, to venerate the priesthood, to protect the poor from injuries, to pacify the province, to pour out their blood for their brother, and, if need be, to lay down their lives” (John of Salisbury 267). Knights were the most honored men, known for defending their homes and innocent people. However, along with being protectors of their home, they were expected to protect the Church. Grand ideals of protecting religion and getting rid all of the bad is what western civilizations were founded on. These morals are being abandoned today, and they need to be relearned.
Critiques in Western Civilization
Throughout history, there have been warning signs of immorality. It is important to learn about the negatives in order to avoid repeating their mistakes. One of the tales of caution lost without Western Civilization is Henry II’s attempt to combine church and state. He was king, but wanted more power in order to control the Catholic Church as well. In order to accomplish this goal, he appointed Thomas Becket as Archbishop, but his plan quickly backfired when Becket chose to serve the church over the throne, at which Henry became enrage and said, “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest!” (190). This attempt at using political power to control religion as well is seen today in politics. If people do not take Western Civilization, they will never learn about the many power struggles and will not be able to see through politicians climbing to be Christian in order to gain more popularity. Many presidents in the history of the US have claimed to be Christian in order to gain religious people’s votes, but they have not practiced their faith. Without the warnings of past leaders, people are not seeing through politician’s surface level claims of religion and it is affecting their countries.
Written in the 14th century, Dante Aligheri’s The Inferno is partially a confrontation of corrupt church structures. It follows one person, named Dante, who journeys through the different levels of the underworld. In the eighth circle of hell, he encounters the simoniacs, or people who stole from the Catholic church. Within this area, he speaks to Boniface, a monk who was generally considered to be a good man, but clearly Dante had something against him. Aligheri uses this character as a way to show the greed within the church, stating: “Gold and silver are the gods you adore! In what are you different from the idolator, save that he worships one and you a score?” (Dante Canto XIX 106-108). The church is still corrupt, both Catholic and Protestant. It is important to learn about the history and faults of the church so as to not lose a perspective of trust. But, it is true that some leaders are only in it for the money and people should learn how to recognize that, some warning signs which can be learned in a Western Civilization class.
Another reason The Inferno gains value is because it provides an example of what life was like in the Medieval Era. All of Dante’s strange fixations on more ancient literature help to show the culture of Medieval Europe. His idea of the ‘muses’ stems from Greek mythology, in which these were a group of women who served as a source of divine inspiration for literature, music, and other written art. Dante’s version of these are three nearly immortalized women in the Catholic faith: the virgin Mary, Saint Lucia, and Rachel, “Three such blessed ladies lean from Heaven in their concern for you” (Alighieri II 121-122). This focus on what came before Dante was not uncommon for writers in the Medieval era. Many of them wrote from the past, looking to it for inspiration and wisdom. The focus on past wisdom was echoed by the writers of Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, since they drew stories directly from their source material rather than simply using it for inspiration.
As well as drawing out the muses from Greece, Dante had a lifelong muse, called Beatrice. He was wholly in love with her and it is unclear if she reciprocated or even knew of his existence. Nevertheless, it was her that inspired and had a role in all of his work as a heavenly being: “It is I, Beatrice, who send you to him. I come from the blessed height for which I yearn. Love called me here” (Aligheri II 70-71). Many artists of this time had this sort of guiding light, a woman or being for whom they lived and wrote or painted. It is important to learn about the origin of many famous pieces since it helps people to more fully understand the culture of the time.
Something which helps develop cultures is shared experiences. The Canterbury Tales centers around an important pilgrimage that many Medieval Englishmen made, which was the yearly pilgrimage to Canterbury: “Then folks yearn to go on pilgrimages, and pilgrims for to seek strange strands, to faraway shires in sundry lands; and specially from every shire’s end of England to Canterbury they wend, the holy blissful martyr for to seek, who helped them, when they were sick” (Chaucer 3). However, the importance of Canterbury Tales was not merely the pilgrimage. It is important because Chaucer used it to bring people together. There were characters from every class, and he certainly highlighted the differences between them, he skillfully wove a narrative in which it would be plausible for them to travel together. Canterbury Tales helps to illustrate the way in which common experiences can bring people together, and it should not be ignored.
The Importance of Individuals
Along with illustrating the importance of shared experiences, Canterbury Tales shows how essential individuals can be to a group. If a person is simply put into their group, they can lose much value without their individual thoughts. Within the Canterbury Tales, there is a story of The Pardoner. This character is an important one, since Chaucer uses it as an example of corruption within the Church. The Pardoner does not care about the people he preaches to about not falling into sin, in fact, he practices those same vices in his private life: “Thus I can preach against that same vice which I practice, and that is avarice. But though I myself be guilty of that sin, yet can I make other folk depart from avarice, and ardently to repent” (Chaucer 491). If the entire Medieval church was characterized as The Pardoner is, many good acts they did would be forgotten, since they did help to spread the gospel around the world. However, it is still essential to have the Pardoner as a character because he represents a part of the Church.
An important contrast to the Pardoner is the character of The Prioress. She paints the Medieval Catholic Church in a positive light, which is important to have as well since the Church does have many accomplishments from that time. The boy from her story shows how important faith was for some, that money had not corrupted the entire Church: “and when I my life forfeited, to me she came, and bade me to sing, the psalm truly in my dying” (Chaucer 533). The boy’s story is crucial to understand because of his faith’s outcome. Even in the Medieval era, when the church seemed focused on money, there were still individuals whose religion was based on faith rather than what they could gain from their god. It is essential not to view the Medieval church as completely unified since these two stories tell such a complicated tale when compared to one another.
The importance of oral tradition has not been lost throughout history, even being maintained in today’s times with TV shows and movies telling the same stories to bring people together. Myths and legends have for many years upheld the morals of cultures, showing what their ideal warrior would be. Beowulf is one of these. The character of Beowulf is honorable and strong, even setting out to kill monsters threatening civilizations other than his own: “He announced his plan: to sail the swan’s road and search out that king, the famous prince who needed defenders” (Heaney 199-201). Beowulf’s accomplishments and chivalry would have been told throughout many lands, showing what the ideal warrior looks like. It is important to understand the oral tradition of older societies to know what their morality looked like, so as to compare it with today’s.
Along with being an excellent commentary on the Medieval Church and sharing an example of life, The Inferno is regarded as a piece of classic literature. It has stayed well-known throughout the ages, even persisting through times of great and contrasting philosophies, “What is this work which has displayed such persistent vitality? It is a narrative poem whose greatest strength lies in the fact that it does not so much narrate as dramatize its episodes” (MacAllister xiii). The shared documents of cultures helped to form an understanding of what living in that culture was like. Dante’s Inferno was one of those documents for Medieval people as a whole, attempting to answer some of the questions people had about the Catholic Church and its conception of hell. Certain schools not teaching the classics is eliminating the sort of rite of passage of knowing what it is to be American. Regardless of race and class, all people would have shared the experience of knowing these classics and it is wrong to take them away for the sake of political correctness (MacAllister xiii).
The shared experience of sitting together and watching Shakespeare plays on a plain stage was a formative experience for many English people. They had to use their imaginations as a group to envision large battles, castles, and epic scenes: “Suppose within the girdle of these walls are now confined two mighty monarchies, whose high upreared and abutting fronts the perilous ocean parts asunder. Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Into a thousand parts divide one man, and make imaginary puissance” (Shakespeare prologue 20-25). The advent of unimaginative entertainment is not helping the modern American society. ven outside of school curriculum, people are being fed the same messages through their entertainment, rather than learning about people from their culture and having to sit together as a group and see great historical scenes take place on a small stage without frills. This sort of rending of creativity is ruining people’s minds. They are being taught to be part of a mindless group both inside and out of their jobs and schools, not learning about their shared history but rather learning about how they should only pay attention to specific groups, even though many of them did not have the same experiences as many Western people and their mistakes and victories cannot apply to many people today, making it even more important to study Western culture (Shakespeare prologue 20-25).
Western Civilization is an important aspect of history to learn. It helps prevent westerners from repeating the mistakes of their ancestors, as well as giving them role models to follow. It also allows people to learn about shared experiences in the past and how they relate to the state of the world today. It is imperative that students learn about their history, since it will help to prevent the same theological and political mistakes of their predecessors and find good role models. Schools must begin not only representing minorities and focusing on identity politics, but legitimately educate students to help lead this broken world, as well as possibly helping to repair it.