May 7, 2002

A dialogue on Western Civ

A Dialogue concerning Western Civilization at The University of Chicago

This dialogue was written in response to an article in the Free Press and comments made to members of Education First by anonymous faculty. It is not meant as a portrayal of real people (all names have been changed at the stipulation of the MAROON), and so should not offend. However, the author has not bothered in this case to distinguish between his own opinions and those of the main character in the dialogue. They do, in fact, go by the same name.

MISS LETHE: Mr. Sullivan, I am glad to see you found your way to my porch this afternoon. There is much to discuss. It is so seldom that people with differing opinions ever have the chance to talk openly, and if I were not so busy I would have come to see you myself.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, I too am pleased to speak with you, although I cannot admit to any free election on my part. Some of your roommates stopped me on 53rd Street. There they demanded that I return with them to your apartment, lest I incur their wrath. So I came. Nonetheless, I hope we can reach a conclusion on the matters that divide us.

MISS LETHE: Indeed. I do hope, incidentally, that my friends did not rough you up. That apology made, however, I advise that we proceed. Did you read Miss Anna Wainwright's article in the Free Press?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I did, and was most flattered by its mention of me. You see, I thrill to my name in print. But let me pose a question, if I may. What, do you think, is the purpose of the Core Curriculum here at the University of Chicago? Is it a purposeful entity, which must be treated with respect for those aims, or is it merely a useful point of differentiation for our venerable admissions committee?

MISS LETHE: I direct you to that article. It states: "The purpose of the Core at large is, arguably, to instill in each U of C student the ability to understand the world, and think critically about everything we are presented with after our intellectual experiences at the College."

Mr. SULLIVAN: Then let me argue for that. It seems to me either a terrifically ambitious purpose or a rather generic and bland one. For, what do you mean by "everything"? Do you mean all things, or only those things that we do not take for granted already, or something else?

MISS LETHE: I mean, in general, those things that can be understood and considered critically. I mean that the Core teaches one to think.

Mr. SULLIVAN: And can one think in a vacuum, or must one think about something?

MISS LETHE: The latter, it seems to me.

Mr. SULLIVAN: And does the Core provide sample objects to think about, without any value in and of themselves, but which simply serve as tools for applying sound reasoning to anything else?

MISS LETHE: You're going to offer an alternative, aren't you?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Indeed. Could it, in fact, matter with what subjects, with what texts, the Core teaches the student to think? Is it important for the Core to teach with and about thinkers and ideas that themselves think and that themselves pose the sort of questions worthy of thought?

MISS LETHE: Yes, that is all likely.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Can one find such thinkers and ideas and questions in the Western tradition? Is part of the value and usefulness of the Western canon not so much its dead-white-maleness, which couldn't pass for value these days anyway, but rather its history as a dialectical process, always asking questions of itself and questioning its very nature? Are these characteristics of Western thought perhaps the same characteristics that you value and that lead you to question its instruction at this institution?

MISS LETHE: I see your point. But I am not bashing Western Civ, even though I can make the jab about the "perennial Dead White Male." But I do think that "the administration and faculty, in abandoning Western Civ, seem to be deeming this particular sequence obsolete…implicitly acknowledg[ing] the relaxation of this school's overwhelming commitment to the Western world." I mean, there are so many other popular civilizations out there, so why hold together the teaching of a less popular one? Why should Western Civ, with its vituperative pasty-skins, matter anymore?

Mr. SULLIVAN: But is it not important that that you are a product of that civilization and therefore would be intellectually lost without it, as a ship at sea is lost without a map and compass? Does it not matter that your very goal of critical inquiry comes in large part out of Western civilization? Is it not significant that the world has been and continues to be affected profoundly by Western civilization, for better or for worse?

MISS LETHE: Are you implying that other peoples and cultures are less civilized than we, that they are stupid or somehow not worthy of attention?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Not at all. Study them and offer them as courses, by all means. I seek simply to affirm the point that our civilization is just as worthy of study as those which are mostly foreign to us, and that it has a certain further importance, being our formative culture, instead of a mostly academic curiosity. I do not discount others who hark from or are interested in other civilizations, but it does seem odd to refuse, in the name of open-minded and free academia, to study the civilization that bears most on one's own social composition.

MISS LETHE: About that civilization that we have all inherited so graciously from the past, Mr. Sullivan. Aren't European and Ancient Civilizations really independent entities that one could study separately? I mean, when does "Western Civilization" begin?

Mr. SULLIVAN: That's a fair question with different answers. But wherever you place the beginning of a civilization, I think one cannot properly understand ours without reference to its formative stages in the ancient world. The connections to antiquity are explicit in so much of medieval and modern thought that it seems strange to try to understand it without first charting how it evolved from the ancient world.

MISS LETHE: Ah, I see that my friend and supporter Dr. J., a faculty member, has arrived. Please sit down Madam, and talk Mr. Sullivan out of his archaic misconceptions. I had better feed the cat.

Dr. J: Still agitating, are you Mr. Sullivan? I thought you scorned protest, being a conservative.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Indeed I do, I am. But if I dislike marches and sloganeering as a form of protest that promotes partisanship and furthers extreme opinions, so I approve of a protest that seeks to resolve issues with reasonable conversation, hoping for communication instead of front-page newspaper coverage.

Dr. J: You have been preaching today about the value of studying one's own civilization, I imagine. But I have a question for you. What exactly do you mean by "Western Civilization," anyway, and why are the ancients so vital? After all, many other cultures, Russian and Islamic among them, were affected by the inheritance from Athens. What is peculiarly "Western" (in a more than literal sense) about studying a civilization that focuses essentially on northwestern European developments? I have made remarks to this effect to some of your cohorts, but as of yet have not received a response.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Indeed, your question is a fair one. But I point out to you that Islam, while it felt an impact from Athens and subsequently Byzantine culture, retains a civilizational history quite outside those influences. Also, there is no objection to including the relevant Greek inheritance in teaching Russian or even Islamic civilization. In fact, with Russia the Greek influence seems quite important. But there are also a series of developments in the West, which result from particular aspects of Greek culture combined with Roman to bring about a distinctive civilization we call "Western". It happens in Western Europe, certainly, but takes important elements from some Mediterranean cultures. Those elements are incorporated into the current Western Civ course, which naturally passes over those Greek developments of lesser importance to the later historical development of the West. I should also mention that the class takes into serious consideration the affect of other civilizations, Arabic especially, on the West, particularly during the Middle Ages. Dr. N. Tryphe, a history professor specializing in medieval Europe, has been quoted as claiming for that period: "'The development of objective science, the creation of parliamentary representation…the growth of philosophical thinking…and sophisticated discussions of self and divinity.'" But all those developments have their roots in what that medieval European world inherited from the ancients.

Dr. J: I see you read the Free Press article, which quoted Dr. Tryphe rather extensively. What did you think of that?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I thought Miss Lethe made a fine contribution to the conversation at this university. As for Dr. Tryphe, she is a serious scholar in her field. But, perhaps, I found something problematic in her statements. "'For me,' says Fulton, who is a specialist in medieval European history, 'this period of European history is one of the most important and vibrant of our tradition.'" Of course it is, otherwise she wouldn't be a medievalist! She later uses the phrase "for me" again. Is this not a sign of her specialization? That is, does it not point to a vocational position, where one teaches a course because it falls within one's very particular specialization instead of teaching it because it is important for an undergraduate education?

Dr. J: Do you suggest she teach subjects she knows nothing about?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Of course not, but I think you have missed my point. I am sure Dr. Tryphe is educated well in the Western tradition and fluent with its historical development, and prefers to study medieval history, which is fine. But shouldn't teachers feel the need to impart that initial general education to students so that they can then choose what specialization they would prefer? It's all right if the Middle Ages are fascinating for her, but don't they exist as part of "our tradition," as she puts it? Isn't that tradition itself worth learning for its salient ideas, thinkers, and events?

Dr. J: But are you saying that students can't choose for themselves which history to specialize in from the beginning? Why should they be run through a gauntlet of learning when they may already know what they want? I assume, Mr. Sullivan, that you, as a freethinking student, would not advocate that teachers oppress their students by instructing them and presuming to know more than them?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Of course not; students are freethinking individuals and do not need any professor to foist any material learning upon them! I say merely that a good Core should expose students of the Western tradition to the entire development of our civilization as it stands now. And "the dual inheritance" from Athens and Jerusalem that starts in the ancient world and develops into the modern one, must be learned by uniting Western civilization, not dividing it up into ever-smaller chunks that strike a certain scholar as especially interesting.

MISS LETHE: Oh dear, I have let him talk your ear off! Come Mr. Sullivan, my roommates will escort you home via 55th street. I'm afraid that Dr. J and I have a scheduled dinner soirée with some folks from the department.

Dr. J: We will take into account all you have had to say, Mr. Sullivan.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you, and Miss Lethe you as well, a gracious abductor. I am always pleased to discuss weighty matters with intelligent people. I shall be happy for a stroll down 55th street, where the painful scars of those who forgot who they were and their relation to time and place are in plain sight. Dr J, save a cheese wedge for me, won't you?