David Brooks, one of the regular op-ed columnists at The New York Times, is very upset with university professors, especially those who teach history. According to Brooks, they are responsible for the “crisis of Western Civ.”
According to Brooks, there once was a time when people in Europe and North America believed in a “Western civilization narrative” that was “confidently progressive” and helped “explain their place in the world and in time.” This narrative promoted certain values, including the “importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, and the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.” According to Brooks, this view of history provided “diverse people” with a “sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary” which in turn promoted “a framework within which political argument could happen” and “common goals” could be attained. This narrative was best articulated by Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (1935-1975) which focused on a number of key figures and described Western history as an “an accumulation of great ideas and innovations.”
At some point, for reasons that Brooks never really explains, “many people,” but especially those teaching in universities, “lost faith in the Western civilization narrative.” It stopped being taught. If it was mentioned at all, it was described as a “history of oppression.” Brooks claims that terrible consequences have flowed from this change in the intellectual wind: the rise of illiberal and authoritarian figures “who don’t even pretend to believe” in the narrative; the collapse of the political center that once had faith in the democratic capitalism that was upheld by the narrative; and the undermining of liberal values in America. Brooks closes by arguing that:
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
One Thing after Another has enjoyed much time to reflect on the utility of Western Civ; while in graduate school, this blog served as a teaching assistant in Western Civ courses for three years (nine quarters in a row!) before spending another three years teaching Western Civ as a visiting assistant professor at two different institutions. These experiences lead One Thing after Another to think (although it pains this blog to be so blunt) that Brooks has ventured into territory he does not understand.
For one thing, who believed in the kind of Western Civ narrative that Brooks summarizes, and when did they believe it? Brooks’ assertions are rather vague. At one point “people” believed this narrative. Then “many people . . . lost faith” in it. These claims resemble those C essays One Thing after Another used to read in Western Civ classes where that indistinct and monolithic entity, “the people,” did this and that for no discernible reason (e.g. “the French Revolution began because the people rose up to fight for their rights”). In an attempt to prove the power of the Durants’ narrative, Brooks does mention that The Story of Civilization sold two million copies (many through the Book of the Month Club), but One Thing after Another has seen enough mint copies of this eleven-volume work in used bookstores to wonder how many readers actually stumbled through its 10,000 pages. What this blog does know is that historians at the time did not think much of the Durants’ efforts. Will Durant was not a historian (he had earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy which is not exactly the same thing as History), and he did not always engage with the complexity of the past. As Crane Brinton pointed out in his review of The Age of Voltaire (Volume 9 of The Story of Civilization):
It is difficult for a professor of history to say good things about their work without seeming to unbend, if not to patronize. Clearly they are readable. They can produce the telling anecdote, the picturesque detail, [and] the sense of movement in events and ideas. . . . Above all, though, they are often mildly epigramatic. Though they can be comfortably realistic about human nature, the Durants are never uncomfortably realistic, never daring, never surprising. Theirs is the enlightenment that still enlightens, basically kindly, hopeful, progressive, reasonable, democratic.
In other words, it was history that was neither taxing nor challenging to mainstream liberal opinion in mid-1960s America. This verdict is especially telling, appearing as it does in the obituary of Will Durant produced by Brooks’ own newspaper, The New York Times.
One Thing after Another will try to leave to one side the conceptual problems associated with the whole Western Civ project (e.g. where and when was the “West,” and on what basis are certain people and places included in this “West”?). Instead, this blog is interested in Brooks’ description of the Western Civ narrative as a collection of great ideas, people, and values whose sole purpose seems to consist of upholding a liberal consensus that seeks to bind our fragile body politic.
It is not clear if Brooks believes that this narrative is an accurate representation of the past of if it is a convenient and useful myth. If the former, he is wrong; if the latter, he must realize that, like most myths, it is bound to be exposed. Whatever the case, Brooks’ essay does not seem to recognize that “history” as a discipline does not “tell” us this thing or that about the past (in much the same way that “science” does not “say” this thing or that about the natural world). Rather, historians marshal documentary evidence on behalf of arguments that seek to represent the past. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others, and they may become dominant in their subfield for some time. But in their bridging of the gap between the present and the past, none could be said to be “the truth.” At best, they are credible inasmuch as they seem to jibe with extant documents of the past.
The point to remember is that history is constantly contested. The discipline does not set forth a series of immutable truths about Western Civ or anything else. Instead, historians present rival interpretations of past events. These rival interpretations stem, in part, from the fact that documentary evidence is often unclear and contradictory. But these conflicting readings of the past are also a product of historians’ own concerns and world views. As Benedetto Croce argued, “All history is contemporary history.” These are the reasons why, for instance, various scholars argue over whether class, culture, or politics was the main driving force behind the French Revolution.
History, then, is often messy and paradoxical. Brooks’ vision of Western Civilization (and the Durants’, from which he takes inspiration) does not seem to recognize this messiness and paradox, and that goes a long way toward explaining why historians no longer find that vision compelling. Western Civilization is no greater and no worse than the common run of humanity. It has done great good, great evil, and very much in between. Its unfolding has been unpredictable and full of surprises. It does not point in any particular direction. Take Rousseau (to name one of the “great figures” of Western Civilization to whom Brooks refers). His legacy is conflicted. This ambivalence is reflected by the fact that the two greatest near-contemporaries who felt Rousseau’s intellectual influence most forcefully were Kant and Robespierre. Not surprisingly, then, there are those who see Rousseau as absolutely indispensable to the development of modern liberalism and democracy, while others consider him the intellectual forebear of modern authoritarianism. Freedom and tyranny—these are the twin faces of the Western tradition, and any narrative that purports to describe this tradition must come to grips with both.
The main problem with Brooks’ argument is that it identifies or conflates a particular narrative of Western Civilization with liberal democratic ideals. It is his anguish about the decline of the latter that provides the driving force for his essay. But there is no need to make historians the focus of his ire. One can love liberal democracy without clinging to a fairy-tale version of Western history. The much-perceived decline of liberal democracy in the West probably has many origins; it seems disproportionate to point to so inconsequential a force as history professors as the main culprits. Defenders of liberal democracy should fight for what they think is right, but they should not criticize historians for refusing to embrace a narrative that does not do justice to the complexity of the Western tradition.
Brooks’ conclusion puts One Thing after Another in mind of a line from George Orwell’s classic, semi-autobiographical short story, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). In the introduction, the narrator describes himself in terms that would have fit Orwell himself:
I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.
The problem was, of course, that even if one believed the British Empire was a “good deal better” than its successors, there was no point in wishing for its survival; its position was untenable. The same goes for the Durants’ narrative of Western Civ. Even if one believes it was a good deal better, its position, too, is untenable.