The Pedagogy of Western Civilization

Mar 12, 2014 by

The history of Western Civilization has been taught in American schools for as long as we have had schools.  Because of this, there is a traditional method in teaching this history that starts a few thousand years B.C. and continues both thematically and chronologically up until the present day (or however far one’s teacher gets before the end of the year).  Is there a reason this traditional pedagogy has developed and stuck for so long, or are we just not creative enough to try to teach Western Civilization a different way, or are we afraid of deviating from the standard so as not to confuse our students when it comes to national standardized testing?  Whatever the reason, it is important to look at this pedagogy and understand why we teach it in such a way.

This is definitely not a geographical area we think about when we think about Western Civ

This is definitely not a geographical area we think about when we think about Western Civ.

Many Western Civilization (or European history) courses now start with the Renaissance, or around 1500.  This disregard for the thousands of years of Western civilization is something that I want to return to, but for now I would like to start where Western Civilization used to start:  in ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Mesopotamia was once a powerful civilization, but the land it once encompassed is today thought of as the Middle East (parts of present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria, among others).  When did Mesopotamia stop being part of Western Civilization?  This would be around the time when Rome comes to power; after the rise of the Roman empire nothing east of the reaches of that empire is considered a part of Western Civilization.

Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire, but it is not considered a part of Western Civilization today.  As the Roman Empire decayed and fell, Egypt came under the control of the Islamic empire.  Even though Islam is an Abrahamic religion, just like Christianity and Judaism, it is not considered a Western religion.  Why is this?  Is there anything inherently unwestern about Islam, a monotheistic religion based on scripture?   This would make sense if one thought of Western Civilization as the history of Christianity.  One thing that used to define Europe was that it was Christendom, a Christian land.  If Western Civilization is the history of Christianity, then there is no place for lands such as Iraq that are home to Muslims. (If one wanted, one could argue that this is why Spain is not really considered in history textbooks until after the Muslims are pushed out and Spain becomes a powerful nation).  But let us continue with this idea and see how it holds up.

pope francis

The Roman Catholic Church is a big part of European history

Greece is thought to be the birthplace of Western Civilization, yet by the time of the Middle Ages Greece is all but forgotten in history classes.  More specifically, when the Byzantine empire conquered Greece, and the Great Schism separated the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church, Greece fades away as the focus shifts further west.  But the Orthodox Church is still a Christian church, so why would the narrative shift away?  The answer is because even though the Orthodox Church is Christian, it is not the Roman Catholic version of Christian.  From this one can conclude that the history of Western Civilization is based on Roman Catholicism.

Italy, the home of the Roman Catholic Church, is very important during the study of the Renaissance, since the Renaissance is all about the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideals.  But after this period, Italy is forgotten until the early 1900s when Mussolini and fascism become popular.  Why would this be if the history of Western Civilization is the history of the Roman Catholic Church?  The reason is that during the Renaissance another movement, the Protestant Reformation, began to sweep through Europe.  Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain are left behind in order to focus north on Protestant countries such as England and Germany.  Thus, Western Civilization is not about the development of Christianity, or even Roman Catholicism; it is a history of the development of Protestantism. (1)

These are the people who designed the original version of your high school history textbook

These are the people who designed the original version of your high school history textbook

Who are the majority of people who first came to America?  Protestants, especially Puritans.  It is no accident that the history pedagogy they designed follows the development of Protestantism, from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia to the modern world powers, like the United Kingdom.  

These days Western Civilization classes do not even include anything before the Renaissance (which I must note here is always capitalized because there are other, earlier renaissances that are not considered to be as important).  Why this Renaissance?  Why not start history earlier, or later?  The reason why this Renaissance is the new start of Western Civilization is because it is from this Renaissance that the Protestant Reformation developed.  Anything before that is nice, but in the end not necessary for understanding Protestant history.

This interpretation of the pedagogy of history explains why so much emphasis is given to certain countries while others are rarely discussed.  History when taught in this way is teleological:  it shows how history moves forward to be fulfilled by Protestantism.  Is this the only way Western Civilization can be taught?  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to study this history in a different way, so that new themes and interpretations can be developed and create a richer narrative of Western Civilization.

(1) Blutinger, Jeffrey, class lecture, 11 March 2014

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