How to end Western civilization

[A video version of this post is at the bottom of the page.]

I was reading Climbing Parnassus, a book-length defense of learning Greek and Latin, and it goes into historical depth about the role of education as a preserver of the best of culture. This resonated strongly with me, because I think it explained my own revulsion at most educational practices today: perhaps what bothers me the most about the way children are educated by our schools is the fact that they are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization.

But the problem is not just a matter of ignorance of books and art. The problem is that knowledge of Western culture has a moral function—it is enculturating. Despite spending thousands of hours in school, students learn little of what can be called the ethical culture of Western civilization, apart from a few lessons drilled home especially hard, such as empathy, ethnic tolerance (not intellectual tolerance), and egalitarianism. Heard only in faint echoes in most classrooms, or in many cases long gone from them, are the texts, the art, and the discussion that would inculcate the rest of the great virtues: self-discipline and hard work, critical thinking and suspicion of superstition, love both as a romantic ideal and as the agape that drives our regard for all humans and maybe all life, good sense or wisdom, and so on. This has been the case since I was a student, and probably since before that, and I think it’s gotten worse. As a result, our popular culture has become crass, rude, and in a word (which would not sound so quaint if we all studied classics more) barbaric.

In largely the same way, despite a few perfunctory efforts here and there, most of our students emerge from high school largely ignorant of the Constitution and our civic culture. First, they lack the education to appreciate The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist, or even to read and understand the founding documents themselves, but beyond that they are simply ignorant of the concepts and the defenses of them that, together, undergird our free republican form of government. They have virtually no clue about such things as freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless search, division of powers, and many other things that one must understand well in order to criticize politicians who, today, are actively trying to limit these aspects of our government. And as a result, the government of what was once supposed to be “a city on a hill” standing for freedom, tolerance, and civic virtue has become a nanny state, constantly rescuing us from ourselves, and one of the largest and most powerful governments in history. As the three branches of government each slowly, gradually remove more and more of our liberty, most of our people lack the tools to articulate or even appreciate objections, and those who have such tools are misunderstood and smeared.

Two historical movements, among others, have brought us to this situation. The first is progressivism in education, beginning with Dewey and his colleagues in about the 1920s. This was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement and transformed education from being a force for the teaching of the entire body of Western culture and values to a bland, smothering force for vague “life skills” and “socialization” and “creative self-expression.” It is progressivism that has left our students incapable of understanding and appreciating our civic culture and values, leaving us open to gradual but inexorable domination of what might aptly be described as a new empire.

The second—and please don’t misunderstand here—is the decline of religion as a serious cultural force for most people. I hasten to add that I’m agnostic, not a Christian, and I know very well that religion still does influence politics, mostly on the right. That’s not what I’m talking about. Apart from a small percentage of evangelical Christians, few Americans (and of course many fewer Europeans) take religion seriously, as providing a broad moral basis that structures how we live our lives. Critics of the religious right often seem to forget that Christianity as a moral culture, beyond its religious and political tenets, instructed people to work hard, to hope for a better life, to treat others kindly and donate to charity, to practice the graces of humility and self-respect, to rein in our passions and practice moderation, to take responsibility for ourselves and our dependents, and much more. It wasn’t all good, but much of it was. It taught the very idea of obligation, which has grown much weaker for many of us. It was an organizing, all-encompassing, core part of the Western civic culture. But really no more. Many don’t go to church; many of those who do go to church don’t believe; even those who do believe don’t take religious moral strictures very seriously; even if they do, they probably don’t understand them well; and finally, those who understand them aren’t supported by most others, who are both ignorant and deculturated, and all too willing to “tolerate” all manner of sins. So, as I say, as a serious cultural force, inspiring us to live well, religion is a pale shadow of its former self. Even as a nonbeliever, this strikes me as a truly profound loss.

So we lack both the education and the cultural strength to resist enslavement both to our passions and to our government.

This is why it is so important that we reinvigorate our commitment to the liberal arts and that we show progressivism the door. I don’t know or particularly hope that we will get religion per se back; I think relearning the classic virtues and the civic culture of the early United States could heal many ills. But if that is not enough, then perhaps we do need some sort of ethical cultural movement, something not associated exclusively with the left, as what goes under the name “ethical culture” is.

We can hope and we can make efforts. But I fear that we’ll simply continue to leave our children largely incapable of assimilating Western culture, while we allow our governments both in North America and Europe to grow and become more authoritarian and centralized, running up massive debts. I fear the results of that situation. Our children and grandchildren will be very lucky if it ends well.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 131 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

6 Responses to "How to end Western civilization"
  1. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » How to end Western civilization | The Echo Chamber April 20, 2014 06:46 am

    […] via Larry Sanger Blog » How to end Western civilization. […]

  2. Reply Gerry Sanger June 19, 2014 13:13 pm

    Wow, that’s quite a word salad. Here’s a few thoughts that jumped out at me. You say modern students are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization. I think maybe they are to a degree, but since God is actively left out of secular schools,

    I believe that CHRISTIAN egalitarianism and agape love are essentially the same. Perhaps egalitarianism without a recognition that Christ commanded his followers to love their neighbors as themselves does not honor and glorify God, so it doesn’t count in God’s eyes.

    What about the complicating factor that the ongoing explosion of knowledge has created? Just in my lifetime, knowledge of “nature” in the broad sense has grown exponentially. The result: Knowledge and life is far more complicated now than when I was a student. Just as my very own career developed, expertise AND even sub-disciplines have continued to grow. The result is that our world has grown much more complex just in my lifetime. The average citizen can’t keep up with the big picture, and has no time or interest in doing so. I see governments’ role as referees and guides to citizens at large. As knowledge continues to grow, who else besides government and academia (often with government support) will or CAN guide and referee fairly? i. e., in a way that honors agape love for all, rather than profit alone, which allows plutocrats to screw their neighbors, rather than love them as themselves.

    A potential danger I see in unregulated capitalism is that it is too easy for the profit motive to be influenced by greed, without heeding or even recognizing other human values.

    I may have wandered a bit off the subject of your essay, but how SHOULD governance proceed in our increasingly complex and overcrowded world?

    • Reply Larry Sanger June 19, 2014 14:54 pm

      Agape and egalitarianism are very different. The first is brotherly love and is an emotion, one which individuals act on in acting kindly toward others. Egalitarianism is not an emotion or an action but a political doctrine, a governmental policy, to attempt to make individuals equal in some respect or other. Indeed, if you think agape requires egalitarianism, you’d need to make an argument to that effect.

      There is far more to Western civilization than religious tenets.

      “I see governments’ role as referees and guides to citizens at large.” Not sure what this means, or what its consequences are for individual rights and freedoms.

      Population growth in Europe and the U.S. has slowed down because people are procreating below replacement levels, and some countries, like Russia, have had fertility rates so low for so long that they are actually shrinking in population. In Africa, some of Asia, and the Middle East, fertility rates have grown, but are coming under control. See: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN

      I’m not going to defend unregulated capitalism here because it isn’t part of my argument. I am curious what you might think about the fact that the governments of Europe have grown to gargantuan proportions and are becoming very contemptuous of individual rights.

  3. Reply Pat Palmer June 23, 2014 21:29 pm

    Hi Larry, I enjoy your posts, and agree with much of the sentiments in this article. I am currently enjoying reading two books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (“Antifragile” and “The Black Swan”). He’s not always a very likeable guy but he does have some important things to say about education (be warned that he’s also been known to bash Philosophy as a profession, too!). His books, which deal with human failures in dealing with uncertainty and “unknown uncertainty” in particular, have been taken up by the computer security world and have become influential. But they make good reading for anyone. He has scathing things to say about conventional education and even some science. All of which I basically tend to agree with. I think you might enjoy his books. Or they might enrage you, I’m not quite sure which :-) THanks for the blog post.

    • Reply Larry Sanger June 29, 2014 14:35 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Pat. Sorry I didn’t get this posted until now…

  4. Reply Lev Burov August 7, 2014 11:19 am

    “God is dead,” is the diagnosis of our society by Nietzche, following Dostoyevski’s “All is permitted without God.”

    I think your own diagnosis is correct, but your prescription is mistaken; perhaps necessarily so, as you claim to be an agnostic. The modern is a painful vision to a thinking person living unsevered of the context of history. To see the clear rationality with which our predecessors were accessing eminence turn into a convoluted mess of meaningless terminology at best and the cleverest vulgarity at its most common among so called elites is none but offensive.

    So where do we get this drive to see the harmony of the world? “‘Wisdom’ is what you define and what you see. I don’t see any wisdom,” they say. What makes one reach for greatness if there isn’t any? If we are nothing but dust in space, or worse a momentary flash of chaos in what only seems like cosmos, a Boltzmann brain or the like? or machines predetermined by immutable laws with no access to truth and ethics? or maybe we don’t know because we can not know? We postulate agnosticism, and so we avoid the conversation, we focus on something else and work without question with heads stuck in the sand. But the latter a path is unacceptable to a free thinker, which everyone of us should be if we are to save the Western culture in this troublesome and dangerous time of democratization, as our Civilization is built on free and open, inspired thought.

    So where did we get this inspiration? With much respect to all that you have said and done, I find negligence in your idea that we can just somehow pick up and go on without our great religion. How can there be an ethics without metaphysics? How do we know what to do if we don’t care where we are? How can we look for and create harmony if we are too hemmed in by our taboos to look into its source?

    The union of Pythagorean and Mosaic metaphysics through Christ is the core of our civilization, and with its God dead we can expect nothing but stagnation and ruin. Without the eternal soul there isn’t a point for trying. Without their Source, the perfect forms are meaningless. Without a loving Father to make us brothers and sisters, the human rights and freedoms are just a veil for corruption. Or are you implying that all this wonder is just a result of some kind of a stimulant of (or worse, for) the masses?

    I believe that the world is God’s workshop. Civilizations, planets, universes—they come and go, but none of it is meaningless, none truly disappears, and each individual thinker is continued to infinity. As Kant wrote, there is no other way to find meaning.

    There is a good chance that we’ve discovered all, or most, of the fundamental laws of nature. We’ve discovered the outer limits of the universe itself, and we’ve reached the smallest of particles we’re ever likely to reach. There are still many details to explore, but the fundamentals could be in place. Maybe that means that the end of our time has come, and a new civilization is on the mark. Maybe that means we’ve only just begun with this one. Still, what it does not mean to a Christian, is that we have no choice but to let our heads down in despondence and let our great heritage, our co-creation with the Creator Himself, be engulfed by the sands of history and dissipate. The Christian ontology itself pushes us toward new creation and greater, more amazing, truth. And if it seems to have hit the twilight, then it will rise again, because truly great thought lives on forever; that is faith.

    I write to you with gratitude for Wikipedia and your other efforts. I’m also quite aware that the modern Christians don’t remember their glorious past, instead focusing on such strange heresies as young earth creationism. But when all is available to all, vulgarity, and with it, ignorance and maybe even misology, is dominant. Nietzche believed that the end of aristocracy will end our culture. Democracy is at minimum a challenge, and we can see its negative results in the slow stagnation by its socialist tendency and election of demagogues into power by its universal suffrage. I just wanted to say that when the problem is with the engine, you don’t throw it away, hoping to get your car to move by making its door handles more shiny; without the engine there’s no motion, and the engine for a civilization is its re-ligion, its re-union with the world and itself through the source of harmony and love, which can be only one.

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