Is “Western Civ” Still Relevant in Our Global Era? A Q&A with Author Carol Symes

Carol Symes, co-author of Western Civilizations, talks about recent shifts in teaching history survey courses, and how Whiggish ideas of European history have been co-opted by white nationalist groups. She gives a more expansive view of Western Civilizations, and discusses how her research informs her global approach to the textbook.

You regularly teach a survey of Western Civilization in a time when a lot of instructors or institutions have shifted to teaching world history. Why is that?

Carol Symes: There is a crucial place in the curriculum for both kinds of courses: they teach different perspectives and foster different kinds of skills. One doesn’t need to be thrown out to enable the other to flourish. 

When world history started to become ascendant, about 20 years ago, many saw it as an antidote to Eurocentric narratives, and therefore rejected the very idea of “Western civilization” as inherently concerned with shoring up those narratives. But this is not at all the case when a course is carefully framed, and the concepts undergirding it are consistently nuanced and interrogated.  In fact, the opposite can be true: in my course I teach the whole expanse of “the West,” which has always included North Africa and western Asia—territories that started to be called “the Middle East” only in the twentieth century, for reasons that were imperialist and overtly political. That’s how I undercut that narrow perspective.

Photo Credit: Joshua Albanese

Sure, an old-school “Whiggish” approach can be hugely dangerous, since it suggests that anything “the West” got from the cultures of Asia or Africa was somehow transformed and improved by Westerners, to the extent that “we” don’t owe “them” anything – and moreover, that once we start talking about late antiquity and the Middle Ages we’re not talking about “them” anymore, anyway, since chronological “progress” means an ever-more Occidental focus on Europe’s world domination. This is the false, indeed nefarious, narrative that undergirds current white nationalist and white supremacist rhetoric. 

By contrast, when Western Civ is taught as the collectiveheritage of all these cultures, then we are teaching that the “us” versus“them” paradigm doesn’t explain anything and obscures a lot, because it is wrong. Students are then encouraged to question whatever “clash of civilizations” rigamoarole they may have learned from popular media or right-wing pundits. Islam is just as much a Western religion as Judaism or Christianity, for example.

What are the goals of your Western Civ course? That is, what do you want your students to leave your course knowing—or knowing how to do?

Carol Symes: Not only do I tell students everything I just told you, I design my course – as we have designed Western Civilizations– to reinforce that through studying the evidence of constant movement and migration, cross-cultural connections, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual exchanges, and so on. That’s the first goal: to help them to grapple with a story that is much bigger, more complicated and inclusive, and therefore much richer than they might have been led to believe. That means explaining how and why the “us” versus“them” paradigm develops under certain historical circumstances, and the work that such notions of group identity performs in different places and times. 

My second goal is to cultivate their interest in, and empathy for, peoples of the long-distant past through the close-reading of primary sources, images, and artifacts. That’s why we emphasize the analysis of visual sources as well as textual ones; we also do that because students often respond to images on a more visceral, emotional level; they are also very good “readers” of imagery. The closer you read, the closer you get to the people who produced a given source, and for whom it was created.  

Finally, the work of embracing that big story and, at the same time, of working through the meanings of minute details in a text or object, teaches contextual and analytical skills that are useful for a lifetime, in any field of endeavor.

How has that changed over the past several years?

CS: Because my classroom is growing more and more diverse in every way—which is wonderful—I am always on the lookout for ways to include those students in the story, so that they can see something of their own backgrounds reflected in the narrative and sources. This could mean talking about the history of disability, or the new discoveries of close links between medieval Europe and western Africa and southern India, or the different gender paradigms of antiquity or of Norse societies in Scandianvia. 

How does the “West in the World” approach, which acknowledges the West was always entangled in global processes, change the way students learn about, say, the Renaissance? 

CS: Well, the intellectual and artistic movement that we call by this name—which was popularized only in the late eighteenth century, and is therefore an anachronism—was contemporaneous with the sweeping global changes of the later Middle Ages. These included the westward expansion of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire eventually incorporated the eastern Roman Empire —what we now (again, thanks to the nineteenth century!) call Byzantium—which caused a mass migration of Greek-speaking Christian intellectuals into Italy, which enabled Italian humanists to rediscover classical Greek: one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. What if that hadn’t happened? At the same time, the Renaissance artists’ use of richly-colored pigments and gold leaf was dependent on an already robust trade with China, southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, all of which had been growing in accessibility since the twelfth century. Moreover, the patrons of all those artists and intellectuals were making their money from this global trade. Voilà!

Tell me about The Medieval Globe. How has your work on the journal informed how you teach the course?

CS: TMG was founded by myself and colleagues at the University of Illinois in 2014, and is the first academic journal to foster a global view of this era: one central to human history and one that had its own forms of global connectivity, communication, and exchange. My work as the executive editor involves fostering those things among contributors, too, so that any interested scholar – or anyone, really – can read an issue or a single article and learn something from it. This means speaking to a much more general audience than the specialist audiences for which scholars usually write. For even if we are all interested in the medieval world, we can’t expect our colleagues who work on Persia or Ethiopia to read Latin, just as those working in Ethiopia know that most Europeanists can’t read the ancient Ethiopian language, Ge’ez. It also means stripping away any specialist jargon that might be off-putting to a reader outside a given field.

As a result, TMGarticles are actually very teachable, and I often assign them in my course, or talk about my findings.  One of my favorites, by a fabulous scholar called Kathleen Kennedy (Penn State-Brandywine), is called “Gripping It by the Husk: The Medieval English Coconut” (TMG3.1 [2017]: 1-18) and it actually starts by quoting the famous bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grailbefore going on to show that (pacethe Pythons) there were actually lotsof coconuts in medieval England, precisely because of the medieval trade networks that linked Europe to India and elsewhere. 

More broadly, it means that I am aware of a lot of the newest methods being developed by historians and their colleagues in STEM fields, which are transforming our knowledge of the pre-modern past: advances in aDNA (ancient DNA technology), archeology, historical epidemiology, and so on. I love sharing these findings with students, and inspiring them to imagine the ways that theymight become future collaborators in the creation and recovery of historical knowledge.