What Faculty Want, Faculty Get

by Jane S. Shaw

Dame Averil Cameron is a distinguished historian. She essentially invented the concept of “late antiquity,” rescuing the period between 476 A.D. and 800 A.D from the Dark Ages. She argues that it’s a mistake — and a reflection of Eurocentrism — to assume that the period after the fall of Rome was one of decline, especially when one looks at areas beyond the Mediterranean such as today’s Iran, Iraq, and Jordan.

Late antiquity was the focus of Cameron’s lecture on November 8 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Inadvertently, Dame Cameron also provided an appropriate coda to the Pope Foundation Lecture Series at Chapel Hill, which ended with her talk. There was one big thing wrong with her lecture: It continued the series’s affront to the concept expressed in the title of the series, “Restoring the Western Tradition.” Her lecture argued that concentrating too much on “Western tradition” is intellectually narrow and cloying.

As I explained last year, the Pope Foundation lecture series at UNC is the remnant of a proposal to develop a concentration in the study of Western civilization. In 2003, seeking funds, university administrators had gone to the Pope Foundation for support for this project. But the majority of relevant faculty members vociferously opposed such an intrusion on their preferences. When the smoke cleared, all that remained was this Pope Foundation lecture series on “Restoring the Western Tradition.”

But even this series, which concluded with Cameron’s address, ended up in tatters, in the sense of carrying out the message of its title. Faculty took the donation as an opportunity not to restore the Western tradition but to critique it. The first lecturer was Elaine Pagels, famed author of The Gnostic Gospels and more recently coauthor of a book about the Gospel of Judas. Pagels is an eminent scholar, but the works she celebrates represent an alternative route that Christianity (and thus “the Western tradition”) didn’t take. To the non-abstruse thinker (someone who might be expected to attend a public lecture), it is the antithesis of the Western tradition. Cameron’s talk reflected the same impetus as Pagels’s — to challenge the view that there is something distinctive or worthy of value in Western civilization.

But what do we expect from academia? “Take the money and run” is a fair prediction of the actions of most people. There is no reason to exclude scholars from this universal motivation. The scholars at Chapel Hill chose what they wanted — their favorite scholars, however inimical to the Western tradition they might be. Perhaps even the more so, the better.