A New Definition of Western Civilization

In teaching introductory world history, it is important to think carefully about what the term “western civilization” means. It is a nebulous concept that is not as easy to define as, say, “the Middle East,” but it encompasses many entwined dimensions.

Traditionally, the story of Western civilization has made an uneasy distinction between a supposedly progressive West, in which conditions of life and understanding of nature steadily improved over time, and a non-western rest of the world, where dehumanizing despotism and stagnation reigned. Then, the story went on, the West’s technological breakthroughs and scientific progress would eventually give it global dominance over the world.

But this narrative of a privileged, superior, Western civilization is flawed in several ways. First of all, it makes an uneasy and false distinction between progress and the epochs outside of the West, assuming that most human societies have never achieved even minimal levels of development. This narrative also assumes that the prevailing social hierarchy of a given era was generally static — and, therefore, that it would be essentially impossible for those at the bottom of society to rise to power in any epoch.

Moreover, the Western story is based on a notion of progress that ignores the fact that much of the world has been in a constant state of change. Consequently, it is vital to incorporate into the study of world history a greater awareness of the dynamic and unpredictable character of historical developments.

This requires a new definition of what constitutes the West, one that is not as narrow as the traditional one, which included only NATO member countries plus Australia, Canada and the small microstates of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino. It also calls for a serious reexamination of the premises of both Western Civ and multiculturalism, which often support rather than challenge quasi-static descriptions of civilizations and encourage students to reify Asian, African, and Latin American cultures as grossly inferior.

The emergence of a more accurate and inclusive definition of the West can make for a far more exciting and compelling world history course. It may help to shift attention from a focus on political history to a wider range of themes, including economic, social and cultural, environmental, and military. It will also help to promote a deeper understanding of the many and varied contributions of non-western cultures to the global heritage. It is a heritage that should not be abandoned or adulterated for the sake of ideological expediency.

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