Embracing Civilisation; Civilising Our Pupils

The word civilisation is becoming less frequent, with a move towards the more neutral ‘culture’. ‘Culture’ is morally neutral. We can discuss ‘popular culture’ or ‘hippie culture’ or ‘goth culture’ or ‘radical vegetable rights culture’ regardless of whether we consider these phenomena to have any aesthetic or moral value.

In contrast, when we use terms such as Western Civilisation, or Chinese Civilisation, or Ancient Greek Civilisation, we are implying that there is something of value in these cultures, something which civilises those who benefit from inheriting what previous generations have built. We also capitalise these terms because they are proper nouns (well, noun phrases to be precise), which as the old grammar books tell you, means that they name an individual object. They are not amorphous; they are specific.

This specificity and dependence upon tradition is anathema to many in the modern world, who are desperate to pretend that every culture is of equal value. The pretence of equality is actually an example of the latest phase of Western Civilisation, in which it moves into self-destruct mode, having pulled up its own roots and declared that only the latest ideas can possibly be valid, because everyone who lived in the past was a nasty narrow minded bigot, and we know so much better nowadays.

So the embarrassment about using terms such as ‘Western Civilisation’ is in fact a peculiarly Western trait, which leads to a particularly aggressive form of cultural imperialism: presentism. Presentism is when the present invades the past, and heroes from the past are turned into puppets mouthing modern slogans and confirming modern values. Robin Hood is transformed into a neo-pagan tree hugger. Disney’s Aladdin turns the genie into a wise guy cracking contemporary jokes. It turns out that all of that weird, mysterious stuff from the past isn’t alien after all. It’s just another theme park, neatly commodified and packaged for mindless consumption and rapid disposal.

We must fight against this tendency to detach ourselves from the past, whether by ignoring it or trivialising it, because every age has its blind spots, and we will never become aware of them unless we travel to that other country, the past, where people do things differently. Great literature from past eras is one of the best ways of making the journey. But we must not twist and distort it to fit into our modern agendas. To be civilised, our pupils must have a genuine experience of the great civilisation which is their birthright.

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