Europe or Western?

December 23, 2003

The discussion about a Western Canon below and on Sheila's site reminds me that I have to make a big decision by Jan 20 - earlier than that actually since Suburban State U wants syllabi ahead of time so they can post them.

Am I teaching Western Civilization part 2, or am I teaching Modern Europe. What is the difference between the two? In a nutshell, the Ottoman Empire and the United States.

Western Civilization was invented as a subject around the turn of the twentieth century by a group of professors at Columbia and Chicago who feared that the distinctive features of "higher" culture were being swamped by a tide of mediocrity, modernity, and immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. They came up with the idea of Western Civilization as a way to preserve and protect their particular culture and heritage. The idea was popular and it spread to the heart of middlebrow culture, especially through programs where people sold collections of "greatest works" or, like the book Sheila is riffing off of, made lists for people to read so that they could feel educated.

The odd thing about Western Civilization is that the geographical focus of the class travels. Western Civ part 1 starts in the Tigris and Euphrates. It quickly moves to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, then to Greece, then to Rome. The first two thirds of the class are centered around the Med, as was civilization. After about 800, the Med largely vanishes from the textbooks, only reappearing briefly for the crusades and for discussions of worldwide trade during the Age of Exploration.

Western Civilization part 2 covers everything West of the Urals, West of the Dardanelles, and North of Sicily. North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt are ignored. But, it adds the United States and Canada, places first colonized by Spain but soon taken over by Britain and France and populated from Germany and Ireland. The North Americans who invented Western Civilization insisted on being included, even though they worried that they were not up to the intellectual and cultural level of their ancestors.

European history, by contrast, reminds us that the most important power in Europe from about 1400 to about 1800 was the Ottoman Empire. More, the history of modernity is the history of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As it faded, other nations came to prominence. Where it pulled back, or was driven back, or had its provinces calve away from the Empire, Eastern Europe, and Egypt became separate entities - the Austrian Empire was carved out of the Ottoman Empire. After 1920 all the land empires got broken into pieces. Austria-Hungary - mostly former Ottoman lands - became a mass of small states. Egypt had its freedom confirmed. The middle eastern provinces were carved away from Turkey - which had renamed itself during its own modernizing revolution - and carved into new nations ruled by the Arabs who had revolted against the Turks and governed under the mandate of the victorious powers. Modern Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, and Egypt owe their borders and their administrative structures to the post Versailles breakup of the Turkish Empire.

Just as the Second World War was a recurrence of the themes of nationalism and communism released by the Great War, held in the lands once belonging to the land empires, so too have the political crises of the modern Middle East grown out of Versailles.

In other words, leaving the Ottomans and later the Turks out of the story of Europe limits and twists the basic narrative. However, the folks who were imagining Western Civilization did not want to admit that they got their ideas from "infidels and musselmen." So, they wrote them out of the canon. Most Western Civ textbooks do not spend much if any time in Turkey.

Of course, the folks who invented Western Civ at the turn of the twentieth century could not have known what would happen: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans were still empires, and Turkey was the "sick man of Europe." What I find more striking is the extent to which we have kept the idea of Western Civilization around, if only as the title for our survey of European history.

I was not thinking about the borders problem as I was choosing my textbook. I picked Noble et al Western Civilization because I liked their use of images and supporting documents, not because they covered the East. I need to dig up the book and check for Turks as I plan lectures. I will need to remember to include the Ottomans in class lectures. I suspect that Noble will have done a better job than Spielvogel, whose piece of crap textbook mentions Islam in the 600s with Muhammed and the early expansion, then drops it entirely until the late 20th century.

And so I have done some thinking about teaching, I have procrastinated, and now I must go walk the hound.

Posted by Red Ted at December 23, 2003 08:18 AM | TrackBack