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How To Recognize Civilization When You See It

We are living in an age when civilization itself is under attack — or at least Western civilization, which has made the fruitful lives we lead today possible.


Editor’s note: This article, originally a speech before a teacher training conference, has been adapted from a pamphlet recently published by Memoria Press and is printed here with permission.

What is Civilization? Let’s consider this a meditation on an idea.

Henry James, in an early novel called “The Europeans,” records a brother and sister, both Europeans, visiting America for the first time in the early to mid-19th century. The brother lights out in search of distant American relations, and upon his return his highly civilized sister enquires into what he discovered: “Are there symptoms of wealth?” she asks. To which her highly civilized brother acerbically replies, “I should say there was wealth without symptoms.”

What did he mean? Perhaps he meant that this young, vibrant country certainly was becoming rich, but the benefits of so much wealth were not tending toward a vibrant civilization. Or at least not yet. Perhaps the brother was referring to the intangibles—the signs, the symptoms—of civilization, the imponderables, not to modes of transport, catapults, and irrigation systems, as textbooks might measure civilization.

He was appealing to a more rarefied view of the idea of civilization, to higher culture and, along with it, the more refined accoutrements of material life. But let’s not slash into that thicket immediately. For the moment I wish to approach the question practically and try to view this abstract but ultimately consequential idea more modestly—perhaps even to spy it, as it were, with our peripheral vision.

But before we do that, let us ask: Is the question of “What is civilization” even worth asking? Let me suggest that this question, as abstract as it is, really lies behind almost everything we do, with and without our children. Of course, life, to many people in this world, is essentially meaningless and expecting it to be otherwise is, they say, an exercise in futility. Life is what we make it and there’s no use fumbling about with the matter any further.

But if we look at life as a kind of dance, as the most civilized people espousing spiritual values over the millennia have done, as a great ritualized dance, what are the dance steps? It doesn’t matter that as fallen creatures we will always be stepping on one another’s toes. Nonetheless, what’s the choreography? There’s no foot chart, but there are a few things we can gainfully observe.

What Does ‘Civilization’ Mean, Anyway?

I’ll say nothing here about civis, civil, or civic. Let’s plow beyond etymology and ask: What do we mean, as individuals, when we say that someone, not a certain society, is “civilized”? Can that assertion point to anything solid beyond vague approval?

This idea has proven notoriously resistant to capture. Nearly 90 years ago, Clive Bell, one of the London Bloomsbury aesthetes, wrote a small book in which he tried to define civilization. He said a few worthy things, but as with almost any such effort to pin down quicksilver, his effort was frustrated.

One also gets the impression that a perquisite to being civilized to him would be to read all the right books, drink all the right brandies, and approve all the right paintings. Not a bad start, perhaps, particularly if ideas and beauty hold any lasting value, but a far from adequate terminus.

What interests me more than the book itself, though, is its timing—coming as it did in the 1920s, just a few years after the cataclysm of the Great War from which, many then believed, the very idea of civilization emerged as the chief casualty. Civilization? That got lost somewhere in the mud of the Somme.

By now you see the difficulty. Still, why should it be so hard to define a word we feel so comfortable to throw around?

Something Best Seen Indirectly

As with the sun, civilization is an object best seen indirectly. As with the moon, we see it in reflection, which is not as simple as saying we know it when we see it, because “seeing” it depends on who does the seeing. The fact is that we need hearts and intellects well and humanely formed to find and identify it, let alone to understand and promote it.

But how are those hearts and minds to be achieved? Because, as anybody classically educated knows, good hearts and sound minds are achievements, not birthrights. That is really, if you think about it, a hopeful thought: These ultimately good things are well within the reach of nearly all who apply themselves.

We simply must consent to follow wiser people who know how to guide us—which is, of course, not how the modern world views either the mind or the heart. As far as moderns are concerned, we’re born good and stay good as long as that troll called “society,” with all its stifling and malodorous checks on self-expression and self-invention and re-invention, does not get in our way to spoil our brilliant and perfectly well-balanced natural selves.

From Subterfuge to Open Assault

Still, this is a timely matter because we are living in an age when civilization itself is under attack—or at least Western civilization, which has made the fruitful lives we lead today possible. That attack upon Western civilization, which was once an underground operation of sabotage and creeping corruption and quiet, persistent miseducation, has become a full-on frontal assault.

That is why the re-civilizing effort to redirect education back to the civilization of the home, as well as to those schools that still support the higher and permanent things, is so gravely critical. Whereas at one time, homeschooling could reasonably be viewed merely as a quaint matter of protecting a household’s children from certain more-or-less-specified but toxic bacilli of public schools, now the stakes have risen.

Full confession: I myself was once a skeptic, if not a vocal one, of homeschooling. The whole effort seemed to me too long a row to hoe for ordinary, and ordinarily equipped, people. But I have since changed my mind. Now I believe that upon homeschooling might well depend the very survival of our country and—yes—of our civilization too. Upon it the survival of our children almost certainly depends.

When once I would have looked out upon a crowd of homeschoolers and seen loving, intelligent parents just doing their best for their children, now I see warriors holding the line amid the noise and smoke sent up by a besieged culture.

How to Define a Civilization

Once more, there’s far too much to say about what makes a civilization to exhaust its essence. So let’s bring the idea down to earth. In our schools, how do we approach defining, say, Egyptian civilization or Greek and Roman civilization or ancient Chinese civilization? Primarily by delineating the remarkable material achievements of those peoples. But of course, that approach barely begins to reveal the quiddities of those epochs.

By that material or technological standard, we can admit that no civilization has ever been more advanced than our own—which of course gives us a license to smugness and certainly permission to dismiss all those poor sods who had to live without the latest iPhone. Why learn about people who have nothing to teach except how to live backwardly?

But when we look to those not-so-easily quantified measures—spiritual, aesthetic, or intellectual values, for instance—or, as that brother in “The Europeans” might have called them, the symptoms—we in the modern world may not pan out so well. Indeed, when we look around today, we seem to be in danger on these very fronts of regressing, of sinking into a dark, relentless, unforgiving neo-barbarism. And if you find that an exaggeration, take a look at any number of Twitter feeds.

Here’s a query for discussion: Are we possibly becoming not more but less civilized in our time? And if so, what are the implications for how we teach and how we learn?

The Effects of Anti-Civilization

For today we are seeing not merely the effects of “non-civilization” but of anti-civilization, which is a different animal. These are forces that seek first to undermine and then to destroy so much that has been painstakingly built and sustained for millennia.

Can we plausibly doubt this? We see everywhere the decline of manners; the ruin of families in political strife; triviality and freakishness in the arts; the evisceration of entertainment; the preachy ideologizing of sports; and of course the full-scale collapse of the news media over the last few years to the point where I, a former journalist, no longer trust the most straightforward headline perpetrated by the corporate media. It’s a sad spectacle, and the tide is rising.

When we examine it closely, we see that this idea called civilization is a fragile thing, which, by the way, may be the most important thing we can say about Civilization: that it’s fragile. That same Henry James once said that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition, and an endless amount of tradition to make even a little taste, and an endless amount of taste, by the same token, to make even a little tranquility.”

What does this mean? It means we can blow the capital accumulated by others who came before us instead of living responsibly on the interest accrued by that capital, as we were meant to do. Tthis is, in substance, what we are seeing happen every day in newspaper and website headlines.

But here we should bring ourselves around to education, to that more or less systematic development of the soul and intellect, which happens both in and out of classrooms, whether those classrooms be in school buildings or in homes. What has gone wrong with education? Let’s look at a few residual effects of forces that, with or without coordination, have overtaken this most desperately critical of pursuits.

What They Didn’t Find at a ‘Liberal Arts’ College

Back in 2013 the National Association of Scholars released a revealing study on the curriculum and culture at Bowdoin College, an old and long-respected liberal arts college in Maine. The idea, I believe, was not to pick on Bowdoin but simply to concentrate attention on one place—to identify its strengths, shortcomings, and challenges—and, presumably, to spy trends in American higher education in the second decade of the 21st century. So let’s look at this one example of the collateral damage wreaked by the prevailing forces of intellectual and cultural destruction.

What they found would surprise no one familiar with the pathologies of colleges and universities—the politicized classroom, sanctioned and protected intolerance for ideas deemed traditional, an overwhelmingly leftist professoriate, a drug-addled and alcohol-soaked studentry, academic laxity, an over-sexualized and licentious culture with the resulting uneasy relations between young men and women that can make a co-ed campus into a battleground.

No surprises there. Bowdoin was just another dreary, albeit hugely expensive, copy of many such institutions all over the country, places you probably would send your own children with extreme trepidation perhaps, but all this is par.

What struck me, though, and what stuck those who performed the study, is what they did not find at Bowdoin. In a college with a fine tradition presuming to arm young people for the rigors and opportunities of the world, many courses one would assume to be taught and taught prominently—even if taught badly—had simply dropped out of the catalog altogether. So far had the quiet revolution gone.

But it’s not only missing courses that struck them; Bowdoin was missing much more than that. Allow me to quote from their non-exhaustive, casual summation and perhaps we can piece out the significance of several items together:

What does Bowdoin NOT teach? Intellectual modesty. Self restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course in Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western Civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance toward dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.

One senses here that they could have gone on. And on. But they gave us the picture in lurid outline. And what does the picture show?

It shows what the life of the mind looks like when untethered both to the fundamentals of and aspirations to a higher culture—to a study of human experience and possibility—and to the felt imperative to pass on a patrimony to which young people, as citizens of their country and civilization, have a right. You know how much there is to know and understand even after looking over your children’s own reading and homework, but here was an entire elite institution dismissing vast swathes of a high inheritance in one progressively gargantuan act of nescience and ingratitude.

Not Just Neglect But Cultivated Antipathy

I would submit the picture is even worse. It’s one thing not to teach high and permanent things, but it’s another to shelve them conspicuously as though unimportant and then, one step further, to press the intellectual charges called “students” to adopt the same attitude of wanton dismissal, which not only encourages arrogance but opens them up to the easily-digested poisons of propaganda, which tends to pass for education when no one remains to see the difference.

No wonder many of us argue for “gap years” for recent high school graduates to last, say, a decade or two. What’s the rush?

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett said the study demonstrates that Bowdoin encourages a “supercilious knowingness,” which is a nice way of saying the ideal student will leave Bowdoin and any institution similarly steered knowing very little while being utterly convinced he or she knows a great deal.

What is very unlikely, though, is that these young people emerge from college as identifiably educated people, having acquired little real knowledge and personal polish and certainly none of the intellectual virtues of meticulousness, open-mindedness, modesty, dogged application, and curiosity tempered by a thorough grounding in observable facts.

As one of my teachers once said when he could see we were not preparing seriously enough for an upcoming test: “If you’re not careful, you’ll get where you’re going.” That is what’s happened to us as a culture. We have arrived at where we have been going for quite some time.

A casual question: What would happen were we to give an SAT-type test to college seniors before they could graduate? My guess is that the STEM folk would have something to show, but those hailing from the humanities—my arena—and some of the social sciences would prove that they’ve become markedly, demonstrably stupider in their four years of undergrad.

Signs of Civilization, and Its Absence

So let us raise a practical question: If we come to discover that defining civilization is too onerous a task, can we at least recognize civilization when we see it?

Here are a few signposts that we are living civilized lives in a more or less civilized society. Take this as a kind of wine-glass manifesto: Tracy’s Whimsical Signposts of Civilized Life. We know we’re civilized:

  • When we realize both consciously and instinctively that human beings are improvable but not perfectible.
  • When the family, not the state, is acknowledged as the basic and essential unit of society.
  • When writers and speakers limit their pseudo-scientific language that patronizingly considers families as ‘units.”
  • When normal people who wish only to raise their families with minimal interference are not treated as suspect at best or freaks at worst.
  • When we dutifully correct a child when he asks “can I” when he means “may I.”
  • When we recognize that each of us is a member of a species with a timeline, and that our very existence is a privilege and occasion for gratitude.
  • When we recognize that there are no rights in a civil society without responsibilities.
  • When we take an interest in the real past at least as avid as that in an amorphous future.
  • When we recognize that the cultivation of self first is the best guarantor of a healthy society.
  • When we take children’s education seriously enough not to assume that the state is necessarily the most reliable educator.
  • When we recognize that the core purpose of education is to transmit values and virtues, not to transform society. And when educating is about forming—and not deforming—souls, not just filling minds.
  • When we acknowledge that observing distinctions is part of a divine mission to make sense of a vast and varied God-created universe.
  • When inner qualities—like ethical strength and moral rectitude—are considered far more consequential than external ones, like race and class.
  • When old things are not automatically replaced under an assumption that the new is always better.
  • When spiritual values take precedence over political ones—and when politicians are not presumed responsible for providing solutions to insoluble problems.
  • When bad schools close.
  • When homes are places of nurture, not launching pads into chaos.
  • When people read good books and talk about them as avidly as they do the latest TV or internet series.
  • When time is viewed sacramentally, not as something to waste.
  • When ritual—national, personal, and religious—is seen as part of life’s dance, not as a deadening but as a vivifying factor in a good life.
  • When we acknowledge that personal goodness is far more important than intelligence—and far, far more important than grades.
  • When we know that the happy life will be better achieved by self-control than by self-esteem.
  • When we follow the admonition of the Greeks “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”
  • When we seek to develop a taste for moderation in expression—and, as one knowing soul put it, “to express assent and dissent in graduated terms.”
  • When we stop abusing useful words like awesome and thereby render them functionally meaningless.
  • When religious truth stands on par with scientific knowledge.
  • When parents and not children run households.
  • When young people are more likely to admire older people of experience than they do those of their own age with far less.
  • When prevailing opinion is not engineered by social media and other cesspits of human activity.
  • When households ensure some quiet time and eschew the tyranny of electronic noise during their few non-harassed hours together.
  • When bookshelves are more physically prominent in living rooms than large-screen TVs.
  • When Facebook and Twitter go out of business for lack of public boredom.
  • When calm, engaged conversation and not frivolous chatter sets the pattern for families’ and friends’ interactions.
  • When we demand that our political candidates actually like the country they seek to lead.
  • When we ask those same political candidates: How unpopular are you willing to be to carry out your duties and initiatives?
  • When children routinely learn to play musical instruments and are given ample opportunities to attend concerts of classical music.
  • When most people resist the politically charged words and phrases of the bored and politically obsessed.
  • When cursive is taught, expected, and appreciated.
  • When phones are used for making and taking phone calls.
  • When children wish to be, and look forward to being, adults.
  • When Greek and Latin are restored to their rightful throne in schools and homeschools. (Hebrew too.)
  • When wine is considered essential to human flourishing.
  • When more movies are made for grown-ups than for children.
  • When history is not rewritten with the manifest purpose of inviting our contemporaries to feel superior to all people who have lived before them.
  • When people don’t do absolutely everything the government arbitrarily tells them to do as and when it tells them to do it.
  • When people realize in their bones that men and women are not born good but whose task it is to become good—and that becoming good usually requires practice and habit and, for some, unrelenting vigilance.
  • When the idea of change—political, social, or personal—is taken as a given, not as a goal.
  • When we commit to cherishing the past and adorning the present.
  • When people are naturally wary of people bearing lists on how to understand a broad and complex idea.

As I say, just a few signposts, but they’re clear enough to mark the journey. Yet, in the end, they are not in toto all we mean when we talk about civilization, because life really is so much larger than a collection of practices and habits and tendencies, however decent they may be. There is so much more. Here are a few others.

More Signs of Civilization

To learn to love language, to be steeped in history by sound reading and long conversation, to delight in the world of the senses, to compose a sentence worth remembering, to learn to draw and paint, to swim in serious music—to do all this and realize that we—even we—belong to the species that created the Great Pyramids, the Hebrew Scriptures, the “Iliad,” the Parthenon, the “Aeneid,” the “Confessions” of St. Augustine, the Great Wall of China, Chartres Cathedral, the “Summa Theologiae,” “The Divine Comedy,” the Sistine Ceiling, “Hamlet,” the “B-minor Mass,” the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, “Pride and Prejudice,” “Moby Dick,” “War and Peace,” “The Wasteland,” and so much else—to do all this is to cast off the blinders of self, to leave Plato’s Cave and to accustom our eyes to a light that blinds but, once our spiritual eyes adjust, can elevate and ennoble. And yes, a light that can also civilize.

Those are symptoms of civilization indeed.

We are a blessed people, and the life well lived consists in acknowledging all of this boldly and without apology and without embarrassment, and in helping others to arrive at the same truth, starting with our children. No act or strategy can be more civilized than that.