January 20, 2004

I like the start of a semester. It is a happy time with a bright future.

I spent this afternoon at Suburban State University getting my ID and my parking pass and getting ready for my first class tomorrow. I got to walk around a new campus, with friendly helpful people, on a bright sunny but cold winter day.

Then after I came home I sketched out what I plan to talk about. It will be a standard first class: introduce myself, explain the syllabus, explain the difference between Western Civ and Modern Europe, lay out the class narrative, discuss what it is that historians study.

I know I have blogged about planning the class before, but let me say a couple of words about Western Civilization and Modern Europe. I forget if I blogged this already, and it did not come up in a site search. Both courses cover the same general region and the same general era, but the two classes are very different in purpose and structure.

Western Civ was invented at the University of Chicago and Columbia University at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the reaction by American intellectuals to the flood of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. These professors were terrified that the flood of immigrants - poor peasants, largely Catholic and Jewish - were going to swamp the native born elite and the descendents of Protestants from Northwest Europe. They drew on their heritate of Protestant republicanism and argued that this particular cultural heritage was essential to civilization, that the germ of society had passed from the Greeks to the Romans to Northwest Europe to the United States in an unbroken succession, and that as torchbearers for civilization they had a moral duty to insist that people conform to their ideals or accept second-class status. This is a reductionist view, seeing cultural elites desparately fighting a rearguard action against what they saw as the march of proletarian doom, but it works well enough for me to use it tomorrow in class. I will double check Joan Rubin's good book on Middlebrow culture before class and Jackson Lears on No State of Grace, but I am pretty comfortable with this interpretation. Western Civilization is the story of art, ideas, all that is best and brightest, and the story of elite culture as it was transmitted to the 20th century Americas. It has widened since then, obviously, but there is still a strong focus on art, literature, and written culture.

Modern Europe, by contrast, is the history of the people who live in a region of the world. It leaves out North America as much as possible, but includes Turkey and the Ottoman empire. If the story of Western Civilization is the forward march of progress as it moves Westward across the Atlantic, the story of Modern Europe is the steady shrinkage and final disappearance of the Ottoman Empire as new empires and nations emerge in Central Europe and move Eastward. Modern Europe talks about the growth of democracy and nationalism, as does Western Civilization, but there is less focus on elite culture, less focus on art and literature, and it discusses all FOUR of the major religious families of Europe, talking about Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims rather than privileging Protestants.

The class at Suburban State is listed in the syllabus as Western Civ, but they normally teach it as Modern Europe and that is how I intend to teach the class.

And so to run errands and then fetch the baby. Sausage and peppers for dinner tonight.

Posted by Red Ted at January 20, 2004 03:43 AM | TrackBack