When I was an undergraduate, we were required to take “general education” classes. General Education was a series of core curriculum courses that addressed the nature of Western Culture, the basics of at least one other culture, and some of the challenges we faced in the modern era. The first class, GenEd 101, was a survey of the legacy of Western thought.
This course read from the Greek classics, the Bible, and Shakespeare, and honestly it was lost on me. As a freshman, I didn’t really understand what the professors were getting at. I simply didn’t have enough experience with the world to truly understand how these ancient texts had influenced my thinking. I certainly had no clue how much we owed to those who came before.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Worse, like many in our culture, I was a firm believer in the inevitability of progress — a true child of Western culture and scientific thought. I believed that the old should be thrown out so that the new could replace it, unaware that the “new” had not sprung forth in some blaze of truth, but had grown organically from the “old.”
The myth of progress is heavily influenced by 19th century thinkers. Metaphorically, it is the intellectual version of Manifest Destiny. We (as a culture) believe that progress is inevitable and wholly good. We do so with a faith as strong as any medieval Christian’s.
This same type of thought is reflected in every “evolutionary” theory of the world, from E. B. Tylor‘s writings that were so influential on early anthropology, to the horrors of “Social Darwinism” that led to the eugenics movement.
The New Myths
I learned in school that philosophy had come down from the Greeks, but I didn’t understand that there was a world out there that wasn’t in line with Greek philosophy. Or if I did, I just believed that my own culture’s ways were superior — without ever really understanding that I’d made that decision.
I was told that Western representative government had come from Greek democracy; I probably even wrote it on the test. But I didn’t “get it” — I didn’t understand why the tradition of democracy was important, because I didn’t really understand that there was a larger world out there, beyond the boundaries of modern Western thought.
It never occurred to me that the West came from somewhere, that it was an intellectual tradition that spanned thousands of years, and that it wasn’t even the only one.
For instance, I “knew” that alchemy was an old, boring superstition, and didn’t get that it was really the progenitor of the world of science that I studied. I understood the “scientific” roots of truth, but not the “cultural” ones. I knew that Isaac Newton, for instance, was a great mathematician and scientist, but I didn’t know that he was also an avid alchemist.
I didn’t understand that the ancient alchemists, the proto-scientists, were science’s forefathers — and that spitting on them for their “foolish” ways was nothing more than childish rebellion.
The More Things Change…
Understanding that “progress” is a value (rather than an inevitable fact) doesn’t mean that all change is bad, either. Feeling that we have to choose between inevitable progress and rank conservatism accepts a false dichotomy in which our own ability to choose is negated by the assumptions we make.
Clearly, the world does change, and every choice we make for ourselves is part of that. There is no inevitable future, so we have a responsibility to make the best one we can. Only by understanding and respecting our roots for what they are can we fully take part in that process.