Western Civ Is Conservative?

As we trustees at New College of Florida prepare for our third board meeting—and the protests that will accompany it —one line of objection doesn’t make sense. We are censured for espousing a classical, Western Civ approach to general education. Only hidebound conservatives would impose that obsolete curriculum upon 21st-century students—or so the claim goes. 

Our answer to the charge: read more carefully.

Consider the syllabus of Western Civilization. It reaches back to Homer, Athens, and Jerusalem, and proceeds through Rome, Augustine, Dante and Cervantes, Shakespeare, Pascal, and Milton. But a change sets in with the Enlightenment. A political theme begins and colors the heritage thenceforward, a theme aligned with (from our modern perspective) left-oriented critique. Think of the dominant figures and their destructive impact on conserving institutions, mainly the churches: Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon, Rousseau, Jefferson, the English Romantics, Hegel, Emerson, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, all in one way or another irreverent figures. They outnumber their conservative contemporaries by a long sight (Burke, Balzac, Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot).

This liberal thrust of Western Civilization used to be obvious to everyone. I remember how a lot of professors in the 1980s and 90s stared in puzzlement as Western Civ came under attack as a reactionary formation. It didn’t make sense. Every revolutionary point the campus revisionists made in that Canon Wars era came somewhere out of Marx on exploitation, Rousseau on corruption, Nietzsche on power . . . So it seemed to older professors who’d gotten their year of Western Civ back in the 50s and 60s as undergraduates and happily linked it to a lifetime of voting for Democrats.

But there was one exception to this, a novelty in the new reforms that ran against the universalist, cosmopolitan theme of the Enlightenment: identity politics. When my late-career teachers in the 80s heard the notorious chant of the marchers at Stanford in January 1987, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” they might have felt the very shiver that the Enlightenment figures on the syllabus felt at the remembrance of the Wars of Religion. Such identity groupings they cast as a mode of tribalism, dangerous and anti-intellectual. Certainly the individualist motif after Locke and Rousseau renounced it unambiguously. Even the collectivist Marx wouldn’t have liked the substitution of race/gender for class. Nietzsche would reject collectivism of any kind (the Superman stands alone), and so would Rousseau, who says at the beginning of Confessions that nobody like him has ever existed before, while a dozen other voices—Jesus, Swift, Hawthorne, and Orwell to name just a few—had issued grave warnings against utopian visions, however progressive.

For today’s Wokesters, the problem with Western Civilization isn’t that it’s conservative, racist, sexist, or Eurocentric, but that it’s liberal. The attacks Western thinkers launched in the last centuries against religious thought and tradition apply equally to the current leftist projects and identity outlooks. Those beliefs can’t survive studies in the scientific method of Galileo and Newton, and our campus managers of DEI know it. The tediously scripted nature of Woke discourse wouldn’t look so incisive to students after exposure to the couplets of Alexander Pope and metaphors of Emily Dickinson. And don’t let the sophomores read Malcolm X, either, whose conversion while in prison happened through deep immersion in the corpus of the West.

The current godfathers of radical thought understood this. Jacques Derrida is in the pantheon of postmodernists, a source for gender studies, queer theory, and the politics of the Other. His deconstruction is a model for the dismantling of heteronormativity, borders, and gender binaries. In a 1990 interview, however, he said this about the tendency of his American followers to downplay the Western tradition: “I think that if what is called ‘deconstruction’ produces neglect of the classical authors, the canonical texts, and so on, we should fight it. . . . I’m in favor of the canon.” 

That commitment didn’t make Derrida a conservative. It made him a liberal thinker using the tools of critique that Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger had given him. The Class of 2023, including those impassioned opponents of us in Sarasota, should have the same formation if they wish to be savvy revolutionaries. Without it, they’re just crybabies.

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