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The Lost History of Western Civilization Is Coming

A cauldron set alight with the Olympic Flame is pictured atop the Acropolis hill as the Parthenon temple is seen in the background in Athens, Greece, April 26, 2016. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Thirty-two years ago, this country was divided by Stanford University’s decision to ditch its Western Civilization requirement in favor of a multicultural alternative. Claims that Stanford had built a racist curriculum around the likes of Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, and Darwin made for a sensational cultural side-show. Today, the Stanford dust-up has become our politics.

Expanded accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and generalized bigotry now enter just about every policy dispute. The very act of naming and defining a common American culture, much less a common Western civilization, is now deemed racist. Increasingly, the left half of the country calls the right half racist. The right half objects and takes the accusation itself as proof of extremism, bad faith, or bigotry in reverse. What has brought us to this point?

On the surface, America has divided into name-calling camps organized around powerful and opposed moral certainties. Dig deeper, however, and a lack of faith drives much of the anger. The campus culture that energizes our national conflicts blends radical doubt with overbearing moralism. Deconstructionist scholars paint our national and civilizational narratives as delusions, yet with certainty that those narratives are designed to oppress. Academics portray the Founders’ belief in natural freedom and equality as a Western prejudice, or a ruse of the powerful, while drawing on those same classically liberal beliefs to fuel their outrage.

To get to the bottom of what ails us, we have to go back to the beginning. What is Western Civilization? How was it taught? Why did its teaching disappear? And how has that changed us? How has comprehensive skepticism yielded up blinding moral certainty? And is there a way back? Ever since the Stanford controversy, deconstructionist historians have claimed that Western Civilization is an illusion — a late invention designed to hoodwink Americans into fighting and dying in Europe, while forcing immigrants to surrender their culture. It turns out, however, that this modern academic narrative is itself an illusion and a lie.

I take up all of these questions, and more, in The Lost History of Western Civilization, a report for the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to be released on January 24. In effect, the report is a short book, the full text of which will be available for free at the NAS website.

The report draws on a deep refutation of academic “deconstructions” of Western Civilization to develop a new way of looking at the battle between multiculturalism and traditional American conceptions of citizenship. The report then explains the link between the relativist skepticism of academics and the moral certainties driving constant accusations of racism and bigotry on campus and beyond. By unearthing the work of great but long-forgotten historians who taught generations of Americans about Western Civilization, the report also casts a new light on the meaning of American exceptionalism.

There is a way out. Western civilization is real, not invented, and has never truly disappeared. American college students are deeply a part of Western Civilization, minorities very much included. Recovering, restoring, and teaching the great books and the lost history of Western Civilization still has the potential to unite a divided nation.

The Lost History of Western Civilization will be debuted at an event at Pepperdine University on Friday, January 24. American historian Wilfred McClay will give the keynote address, and a panel consisting of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe, Chair of the History Department at the University of Dallas Susan Hanssen, and Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory and frequent commentator on public affairs, will comment. You can register for the event here.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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