When one considers how to devise a curriculum for such a large and nebulous topic as is encompassed by the term “western civilisation”, the initial response would surely be to throw up one’s hands in horror.  At best, a three-year degree can only provide a sample of the vast number of cultural artefacts produced by “western civilisation” however that idea might be defined.

Hopefully, that sample will be representative and not just pander to a particular view, be it rosy or dark, of what constitutes that civilisation.  With that in mind, one can put forward a few principles that can be used to evaluate the extent to which such a curriculum encompasses what might be termed the “broad church” of western civilisation

  • The curriculum would need to be able to identify the key periods and intellectual and cultural movements that have moulded that civilisation.
  • It would need to appreciate that western civilisation as with any civilisation is composed of a number of strands and traditions, some of which may be at odds with other strands and traditions.
  • It would need to encompass a large range of cultural expressions from visual art to literature to philosophy to music to historical writing to religious writing, and, even then, there is more that could be included.
  • It would need to be able to provide students with a sense of how western civilisation differs from the civilisations of the other parts of the world and what it has in common with them.
  • It would need to include what might be considered the “dark side” of the west, for example the more than abundant literature on race that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • It would need to avoid a Whig history of western civilisation that provides some sort of teleology of some sort of relay race whereby the baton of the west was passed down from ancient times through to the present day.

As I said, to produce a reasonable degree that provides some sense of the complexity of western civilisation appears to be an immense task, one that, in our age of both increasing knowledge and academic specialisation may almost seem to be impossible.

And yet, the Ramsay Centre is providing funding, very generous funding, for those willing to undertake such a task.

The University of Wollongong has signed-up with Ramsay and produced an outline of a curriculum in Western Civilisation on its www site.

The University of Queensland is still in negotiations with Ramsay but there is a draft of what it proposes.  Given that it is impossible to produce a “perfect” curriculum, one can still look at these two outlines and see how well they stack up.

One solution to the problem of the large range of material that can be included in such a curriculum is to have a small number of core units and a larger number of electives, thereby providing students with the opportunity to pursue their particular interests which is what the University of Queensland has done.  Hence it has six core units: The Classical World, The Judeo-Christian Tradition, European Enlightenments, The Modern and its Discontents, Situating Australia and Creating the West.

These units look as if they were farmed out to particular groups within the university and then assembled as a curriculum.  The Classical World contains only one Latin work, with most of the works coming from fifth century Athens.  One can admit the significance of the Age of Pericles but there is an enormous literature, in both Greek and Latin, produced over the next one thousand years that might merit some attention.  Even Cicero is relegated to a minor role even though he was possibly the most important influence on western civilisation from the ancient world.

The Judeo-Christian Tradition unit is more interesting, including many Old Testament books (but not the Song of Songs), the Book of Revelation and other more obscure texts such the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus causes the death of two children, and The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a work originally written in Syriac in response to the Saracen invasions.  Oddly, this unit does not go beyond the Middle Ages so that the Reformation is completely ignored, as is the Renaissance.

The Middle Ages is represented by Creating the West, but it only includes two medieval authors, Bede and Einhard.  Chronologically, the west then jumps to the age of the Enlightenment, which reminds one of the way traditional Whig history jumped over the Middle Ages as it held its nose.  One fascinating thing about this unit is the inclusion of the ‘dark side of the Enlightenment’ in the shape of the Marquis de Sade.

Students are then invited to consider The Modern and its Discontents which is necessary for any study of Western civilisation, but I must admit that I found the choice of readings somewhat unimaginative; one would have liked to see more writers and novelists included here, perhaps Kafka, Thomas Mann, Gide or Camus, or even a poet such as Baudelaire or Rilke.

Oddly, the opposite is the case for the unit on Situating Australia which is almost entirely composed of imaginative literature.  At least this unit includes some poetry and a work of drama.  Given how much poetry the west has produced, its overall absence is something of a concern.  What is absent is much consideration of historical writings, which is odd given that the narrative mode, be it in the form of history, biography or the novel, is one of the defining characteristics of western civilisation.

The electives for the Queensland degree are weighted somewhat towards political theory and law, as one might expect given that these students will largely be studying law as well. It does not include much in the way of the study of other civilisations, such as might allow students to acquire a sense of how western civilisation fits into the larger picture of human civilisation generally.  I do not think that it does enough to indicate the plural nature of western civilisation; for example, it would be useful to include the Corpus Hermeticum, given the enormous influence that it has had on the west, and western mysticism.  It has done a better job on the matter of the “dark side of the west,” although, as mentioned above, the issue of racial theory really should be in there somewhere.

The degree is not perfect, it is selective, but then we all have to live with imperfection.  Students will get some sense of what western civilisation is about but there are significant gaps, especially in the period between antiquity and the Enlightenment and it can be claimed that the texts selected tend to be weighted towards the Anglo tradition.

The Wollongong degree is somewhat different.  For one thing, it claims to be a philosophy degree; for another it is not divided into a core and electives.  It seems to be interested in employing only philosophers to teach this degree.  This means, among other things, that students doing western civilisation at the University of Wollongong will be forced to do quite a bit of philosophy and this means that they will have a somewhat slanted view of what constitutes the western tradition. It needs to be emphasised that philosophy constitutes only one strand of the western tradition, that philosophers are somewhat unusual sorts of people and that philosophy is a highly abstract mode of cultural expression.

Moreover, even those units that deal with non-philosophical topics take a philosophical approach.  For example, the unit Classics of the late Renaissance is to be approached through the lens of “philosophy of literature”.  Visual art becomes a unit on aesthetics.  Religious works are studied within the framework of the philosophy of religion.  Hence, there is no equivalent in this degree to the Queensland unit on the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Instead it is proposed to compare the Bible and the Quran.  This has the effect of downplaying the significance of the Jewish contribution to western civilisation which is considerable.

What this also means is that the Wollongong degree, like the Queensland one, largely ignores the narrative traditions of the west, once it pays the inevitable homage to Herodotus and Thucydides.  There is very little acknowledgement of history and biography, very important forms of Western cultural expression, and only limited study of the novel and story.

Consequently, this degree focuses much more heavily on ancient Greece and Rome, and, in particular Greek philosophy.  Both Plato and Aristotle turn up in more than one unit.  Moreover, these philosophy units attempt to bring ancient thinkers into dialogue with modern works, a technique of which one should be wary.

This degree does contain a unit on the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, as well as one on the late Renaissance but like its Queensland counterpart, ignores the Reformation.  In both cases, this is decidedly odd, especially as there are arguments to be made regarding the relationship between the Reformation and the coming of Western modernity.  But then medieval philosophy is also ignored.  If, as has been claimed in recent times, the philosophy of Duns Scotus is crucial for the coming of Western modernity this is a serious lacuna.

Unlike the Queensland proposal, the Wollongong degree has a unit on the ‘Rise of Western Science.’  It follows this with a unit on the ‘Classics of the Enlightenment’ and another ‘Classics of the Modern Era’.  At least the authors of the Queensland degree are aware that all has not been all sweetness and light since the Enlightenment, and that there is a need to address the ‘dark side of the force’.  This is a Whiggish triumphalism, as indicated by the term “classics”, in the Wollongong degree and it is somewhat disconcerting.

Again, this issue could be addressed by considering the place of Jews in the West since the Enlightenment, both in terms of their enormous cultural contribution to Western Civilisation and the anti-Semitic literature which followed in the wake of that contribution.

As with Queensland, the Wollongong degree has a unit, its capstone unit, on Australia but it largely focuses on politics to the detriment of literature.  One would have hoped that a unit dealing with Australian democracy could have included the literature of that democratic society.

The real problem with this degree is that it is less a degree in Western civilisation than a degree based on a particular vision of ‘Western philosophy’, one that has a teleology from the ancient world to the modern (with the middle left out) and which culminates in contemporary Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy.  It is very clearly Whiggish.  At least, in the Queensland model there is an opportunity to consider Abelard and Heloise.

The narrow focus means that a whole range of western cultural achievements are not considered, or considered very superficially.  These include poetry, historical writing, biography, drama, music and much of the western religious tradition.  If one is a student wanting to do this degree they need to be prepared for an awful lot of philosophy.

At another level, this degree does make some attempt to compare western civilisation with other civilisations, although it is curious that this does not include India, given the enormous influence that Indian thought had on nineteenth century Europe, leading to such things as Theosophy.

The Wollongong degree will provide students with a partial view of western civilisation, one seen through the lens of a particular understanding of the nature of western philosophy.  It is narrow and Whiggish and fails to deal with the ‘dark side’ of western civilisation.  At the same time, it hides many of the riches of the west that are not philosophical in nature.  As with the Queensland degree, it is too Anglo-centric in terms of the texts that it selects for study in the modern era.

Of course, it is easy to be critical and to point out the deficiencies in what is really an impossible task.  The real proof of the pudding will be in the eating.  Will students wish to do either of these degrees (assuming that the Queensland one goes ahead)?  Will they find them interesting and stimulating?  Or will they simply do them because of the scholarships that are offered?


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