What is Killing Western Civilisation?
Updated: Aug 22
Friday 21 September 2018
Claire Fox, Yaron Brook and Douglas Murray
1 Birdcage Walk, Westminster
Arts-based subjects in schools have suffered from downgrading in recent years. Whilst it might strike some people in the UK as strange that there are university courses in which students study poetry, plays, novels, drama and art, consider those countries in the world which don’t offer arts courses in academic institutions or, for that matter, where the arts don’t thrive at all. Would you want to live in any of them?
I thought about this on Friday night, as I sat in a talk with Yaron Brook, Claire Fox and Douglas Murray: What is killing Western Civilisation? For it was during this discussion that the importance and values of the arts, from across Europe, became a centre point. For those who think that Western civilisation is doing just fine, Brook started with his own explanation of the problem. Western civilisation is not geographical or ethnic, but is based on ideas, originating from Ancient Greek philosophers and later rediscovered by The Catholic Church. These ideas are based on a healthy respect for reason; reason is specific to all humans as long as we exercise the capacity to think.
Moreover, asserted Brook, the enemies of the west are often ideas perpetrated by the West: Brook cited religion as his prime example. In addition, there is a problem when individuals have no idea what the Enlightenment is, where it came from or what it was about. We thought everyone knew about these ideals and believed in them, said Brook, but we seem to have been mistaken. For many people in the West, wealth is just there, and is treated as though it was always there and did not require any struggle to establish it. Western civilisation, then, is being killed partly through ignorance of what conceived it in the first place.
For his part, Murray characterised the collapse of Western civilisation using an analogy from Delsol’s Icarus Fallen. Imagine if Icarus had survived – how would he have coped with the next stage of his story? Europe is in an uncertain time, claimed Murray, with no sense of what the next stage of its story should be. Secularism has created a void: without God we have nothing to believe in and we don’t seem to know what to do next. The Enlightenment, said Murray (agreeing with Brook), did not go widely or deeply enough, although we take it for granted that European citizens are on board with its core values. In a further echo of Brook, it is hard for people in the West to grasp how lucky we are.
Murray is often criticised for his commentary on migration policies, which he sees as profligate on the part of the European politicians who have introduced free movement. I am still not a convert to Murray’s concerns, since free movement of people still seems desirable to me. However, listening to Murray does make me think that it is not just people that move to other countries: ideas migrate too. In that sense, Enlightenment values become like Freud’s ego: in the same way that the ego must be strong enough to mediate the id and superego, the Enlightenment must be strong enough to mediate different cultures. A strong belief in Enlightenment principles matters and therefore knowing about the Enlightenment becomes more important than ever.
As ‘Chair’, Claire Fox then added the idea that she sees people searching for meaning, but fruitlessly or aimlessly. To give my own example of this, when people protested at the arrival of democratically-elected Donald Trump to the UK, I was never sure what their protest was about. The meaning of the act seemed undefined. These people identified a general cause and were undeniably motivated enough to look for something. There is certainly endeavor, but for what? Still, if people are searching for meaningful answers, there is room for optimism.
I think that the teaching profession in the UK is an interesting microcosm of the wider malaise that characterises Western civilisation and its problems. This question immediately rings true when I think of the TES articles that I have read in just the last week. One spouse of a recently sacked headmaster, for instance, posed the question, what do we expect from our headteachers?
Teachers also want to find meaning in their work, in a job which attracts recruits because it promises to be rewarding. But recruitment is problematic and attrition rates are high. Despite a positive reputation for being rewarding, the teaching profession loses its colleagues, sometimes to stress-related illness. People often leave the teaching profession bitter and jaded, like Richard Carstone in Bleak House, each one exhausted through obsession with bureaucracy in their very own Jarndyce and Jarndyce case.
By the way, teachers like me spend a lot of time searching for professional development training with mixed success. I believe that talks like the Brook/Murray one are the best form of teacher CPD. There is no paperwork, no PowerPoint, no jargon, no cliche and no therapy. I came away thinking that maybe the teaching profession has lost its way in the sense that I am not sure what unites it. But I have a suggestion, having once asked a lecturer to help me with an assignment and being angrily told, “There’s a library over there, why don’t you try using it?” This retort is incredibly malleable. The library is often a good place to start.
I think that all teachers in the UK can agree that every student needs to leave secondary education understanding what the Enlightenment was and what it produced. This wouldn’t, I think, have a huge impact on the profile of subjects such as the traditional sciences and maths. Reason and logic are integral to what the scientist or mathematician does. Not all influences on science and maths of course were European, but to satisfy the European philosophers all ideas had to stand up to high standards of reason. Whilst there is concern over the level of school leavers’ numeracy, no one disputes that numeracy matters. Whether the philosophy and origins behind maths and science are widely known is another question.
Meanwhile, the arts needs to reestablish itself in education. To do this it needs to be treated with equal importance to maths and science. Undoubtedly, doing well at maths and science will boost income, but even an engineer cannot build without a stable society and, when strong, the UK is built on good ideas. The arts is a looking glass for these ideas. You would not want to leave a country or a school where the arts flourished: schools therefore neglect the arts at their peril. English literature, drama, art, music and film need to be more widely discussed in the context of the Enlightenment values that liberated them. Since the right to enjoy and develop video games is also related to a free society I personally would include these art forms in the curriculum.
Most teachers in the profession, based on my personal experience, would rather be talking about these interesting things than doing mindless bureaucracy; it is staggering that we spend time staring at a computer screen, predicting grades, writing plans, devising targets, risk assessing and so on when the pupils who leave our school often lack an understanding of what the Enlightenment means.
These topics should occupy a great deal more of teacher professional development, PSHE, extracurricular activities and parental exchanges. Yaron Brook’s definition seems like a good one, but, in any case, these ideas should be both clearly established and seldom written down. Teachers do not need to be so bureaucratic, since many of the best ideas have already been recorded - they are in the library. In this context, a school leaver who either does not know what the Enlightenment is or does not see the wisdom of its values would be the biggest single indicator of a school’s failure.