Left, right both wrong about DeSantis’ ‘Western civilization’ courses

by Jonathan Zimmerman

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants every college in his state to teach courses in “Western civilization.”  

And I say: Bring it on. 

“We want to make sure that everybody that goes through a Florida university has to take certain core course requirements, that’s really focused on giving them the foundation so that they can think for themselves,” DeSantis declared earlier this year. “And the core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization.”  

But any course that did that would teach students to question everything, including DeSantis. And I rather doubt that the governor and his GOP disciples want that. 

Nor do Democrats, who quickly denounced DeSantis’ proposal as an effort to indoctrinate American — or, even, white — superiority. Taught properly, however, a course on Western civilization would undermine some of the Democrats’ own favorite ideas, especially about race and identity. 

Anyone who thinks otherwise should read “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation” by Roosevelt Montas. Montas is the former director of the core curriculum at Columbia University, which is centered heavily upon, yes, Western civilization. And he rebuts both conservative and liberal assumptions about it. 

In Florida, for example, several charter schools and right-wing Christian academies focus their curricula on classical texts. They proudly advertise the “centrality of the Western tradition” and “nourishing the soul on truth, beauty and goodness,” as one school declares. 

But here’s the essential truth that conservatives won’t tell you: The Western tradition has never spoken with one voice about what’s true. 

Indeed, philosopher Leo Strauss — whom conservatives often invoke in defense of timeless verities — described Western civilization as a continuous conversation, not a singular set of beliefs. It includes theists and atheists, stoics and hedonists, warriors and pacifists, and everything in between. And “since the greatest minds contradict one another regarding the most important matters,” Strauss wrote, “we cannot take on trust what any one of them says.” Instead, we need to figure it out for ourselves. 

That’s where Socrates comes in. Arguably the most important figure in Western philosophy, he wandered around Athens, Greece, questioning everyone and everything. Most people went through life with presumptions that they never really subjected to scrutiny, Socrates said. Education should force them to do precisely that, over and over again. 

That’s probably not what DeSantis has in mind. One of the matters that the ancients constantly debated was the nature of love, including same-sex attraction. By contrast, DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill — which he pointedly signed at a classics-centered school — restricts discussion of gender identity and same-sex relationships. How can we learn about these subjects, Socrates would ask, if we can’t talk about them?  

But Socrates was an equal-opportunity myth buster. So you can be sure he would question Democrats, too, especially about their fixation upon race as the most indelible feature of modern life. In a diverse society, they often ask, why teach “great books” by dead white guys? We should instead teach material that’s relevant to the rainbow of ethnic and racial groups in our classrooms. 

Tell that to Montas, who was born into a working-class family in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States when he was 12. He won a scholarship to Columbia, where he encountered Plato, Augustine, Sigmund Freud and the other mostly dead white males of the college’s core curriculum. 

These authors came from different times, places and races than Montas did. But they spoke to him, anyway, because they asked the questions that define us as human. Why are we here? How can we live a good life, and what does that mean? What will happen to us after we die?  

True, Montas admits, many of these texts contained claims that strike us as racist or misogynist today. But they also provided the intellectual tools to critique bigotry and discrimination of every kind. That’s the genius of the Western intellectual tradition: By teaching inquiry, it liberates us from our inherited predilections and prejudices. 

I went to Columbia many years before Montas, but we read the same books. They didn’t make me into a white chauvinist; instead, they taught me how much human beings have in common. 

It’s a lesson we could all stand to learn, especially right now. 

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools.”