Law & Liberty: A New Beachhead for Western Civilization
This article was originally posted at Law & Liberty.
This fall I joined the faculty at New College of Florida, where educators are engaged in a radical experiment: to transmit the story of Western civilization—its achievements as well as its failings—as an essential requirement of citizenship. That this proposition is considered radical speaks to the moral rot in our national life.
New College, the state’s honors college, has received international attention because of the role of Governor Ron DeSantis in appointing conservatives to its board of trustees. Earlier this year, the board voted to close the school’s office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and eliminate courses in gender studies, the first public college in the nation to do so.
The partisan nature of the debate over the intended reforms at New College obscures a profoundly important question: Is liberal democracy—and the civilization from which it emerged—worth defending? Ironically, many conservatives are as desperately confused about the answer to this question as is the progressive Left.
The historical narrative of the Left is that Western civilization is a conceit. It has produced a toxic mix of imperialism, militarism, and racism. Our democratic ideals and institutions, we are told, are tools of the oppressor against the oppressed. The United States, as the lead nation in the West, is largely a force for evil in the world.
The storyline of the new Right, however, can be equally damning of our liberal, democratic tradition. A growing cohort has become disillusioned with the American Founding. For them, the United States was conceived in a state of sin—not primarily the sin of slavery, but rather the devilish Enlightenment ideas about human freedom, equality, and natural rights. The inevitable result was a society awash in materialism and radical individualism.
Both of these ideological tribes share the same vice: the blinkered outlook of the cynic. Largely ignorant of our civilizational history, they cling to distorted notions of our past and thus plot utopian visions for our future—either militantly secular or semi-theocratic. But a liberal arts education, firmly grounded in the humanities, offers a better path.
It begins with the knowledge that Western civilization is the centuries-long interaction of Greek and Roman culture, adopted and transformed by the Jewish and Christian traditions, and then transformed again by the scientific, democratic, and intellectual revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe and the United States. Over the course of the twentieth century, through two world wars and a Cold War, our civilization—indeed, all of human civilization—barely survived the prospect of extinction.
This should give us pause. What we call the Western tradition is a story of exploitation, slavery, inquisitions, and war—as well as a story of exploration, freedom, enlightenment, and redemption. Our civilization is something far less than heaven on earth, yet far better than most of the historical alternatives.
Why devote attention to the West? What about Asia, Africa, and the civilization of Islam? They all have influenced Western civilization.
Consider some of the features of modern life that we take for granted: universal education; access to quality health care; clean, running water in abundance; the application of science to harness resources that enrich our lives in countless ways; economic systems that make creative and meaningful work possible; and political societies based on the concepts of government by consent, freedom of speech, assembly, and the freedom to worship God, or no God, according to individual conscience.
All of these accomplishments, though embraced in many parts of the world, were pioneered by inventors and thinkers in the West. These are the fruits of one civilization, in particular, our own.
In his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, British historian Niall Ferguson observes that the dominance of Western culture during the last 500 years is a stunning historical development that demands an explanation. “It is the story at the very heart of modern history,” Ferguson writes. “It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve.”
The task of the educator in relation to his student, Locke wrote, is “not so much to teach him all that is knowable, as to raise in him a love and esteem of knowledge and to put him in the right way of knowing, and improving himself, when he has a mind to it.”
In a healthy academic environment, young minds will be encouraged to grapple with this riddle. Rather than arguing over the merits of programs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, a wiser approach would be to grasp how and why the West has placed such a supreme value on pluralism, fairness, and equal justice under the law. Like no other civilization in history, the West has attempted—haltingly, to be sure—to apply the Golden Rule to its political culture.
This was one of the signal contributions of English philosopher John Locke, considered the father of political liberalism. More compellingly than any other thinker, Locke anchored his arguments for freedom and equality in a biblical view of the human person: man as “God’s workmanship,” as he put it in his Second Treatise of Government (1689). Equally important, he understood that these ideas must be transmitted to the next generation. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Locke insisted that “the welfare and prosperity of the nation” depended on the proper education of young people.
At New College, this education will involve a robust commitment to a liberal arts curriculum rooted in the humanities: the disciplines of literature, politics, philosophy, history, and the arts, as they have developed in the Western tradition. Americans are in the throes of a national argument over what kind of education is essential for our modern democracy. There is less debate, however, over the appalling deficit of decency and civility in our political and civic lives. The precipitous decline of the liberal arts in education is surely part of the reason.
Locke’s contemporaries, too, complained bitterly about the degraded levels of both civic virtue and personal piety. The task of the educator in relation to his student, Locke wrote, is “not so much to teach him all that is knowable, as to raise in him a love and esteem of knowledge and to put him in the right way of knowing, and improving himself, when he has a mind to it.” To cultivate a love for knowledge, not only for its own sake, but for the improvement of our souls: This has been the defining contribution of the classical liberal tradition in the West, a deep source of its cultural health and vigor.
It can become so again—if we have a mind to do it.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.