Sommerville, C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chapter 8, “Losing a Sense of History” pp. 97-109.
Sommerville, long a professor of Western Civilization, expresses concern over the decline of courses in the humanities focused on the successes of the West (Sommerville 2006, 97). In his past, a study of history and the humanities was understood as a way of learning the good humans are capable of. Specifically, he observes that Western culture has a history of approaching problems differently from the rest of the world, and with remarkable success. However, since the late 1960s or early 1970s, students and scholars have seen less intrinsic need for a study of what makes a civilization great (Sommerville 2006, 98).
Tracing the history of changes in attitude toward Western Civilization, Sommerville finds a decline roughly corresponding to the broadening access to college education beginning in the late 1800s, as the overall pattern of a classical curriculum broke down in favor of more elective options which might appeal to a less elite student body (Sommerville 2006, 99). During and after World War II, departments shifted their emphasis increasingly to pragmatic and ethical considerations which could seem more relevant. Especially at University of Chicago and institutions which followed their lead, courses in critical thinking and social science became more prominent than those in Western Civilization (Sommerville 2006, 100). The academy increasingly avoided “dead white Europeans.” The issue was of great importance because “students representing the previously neglected groups were entering the university with a sense of grievance” (Sommerville 2006, 100). On the contrary, Sommerville notes that all courses are incomplete by nature, that they are intended to help students seek out a good framework to ask questions, and that a study of one’s own (majority) culture provided a framework to investigate others (Sommerville 2006, 101).
As a replacement to Western Civilization, Sommerville finds universities are studying World History. However, different academics define the discipline in various ways. Sommerville does not think it common for a university to treat World History as “a brief survey of all the world’s civilizations” (Sommerville 2006, 101-102). In an acdemic climate of diversity, every group which has felt ignored by the academy will try to emphasize its own distinctives. Sommerville believes this requires too much of scholars. “We have not yet created a rationale for learning about others before we’ve learned about ourselves. The point in studying others is presumably to get another perspective on ourselves (Sommerville 2006, 102).
Sommerville next ties secularism into the picture, as the historical movement which sets out to destroy traditions (Sommerville 2006, 103). A course in Western Civilization pursues understanding of the majority culture in this hemisphere. The course in World History attempts to devalue that culture in favor of a smattering of others. Meanwhile, Sommerville alleges that a great many of the cultural institutions we and our students take for granted are religious in nature, thus not comprehensible in a fully secularized society (Sommerville 2006, 104).
Sommerville explores the interaction between the religious and secular by considering the 2004 juxtaposition of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brown, claiming to be writing historical fiction but saying much of the information is true, presents many patently false ideas as true (Sommerville 2006, 105). However, Brown’s claims were largely debunked by non-academic writers. Universities have made virtually no effort to clarify the historical record (Sommerville 2006, 107).
On the contrary, universities responded to Gibson’s work specifically because he was faithful to the historical sources we possess in The Passion of the Christ. Rather than offering his use of historic records of Jesus’ trial, they attacked it, after reversing their previous, published, opinions (Sommerville 2006, 107). In effect, because Gibson’s work was offensive by demonstrating adherence to a well documented religious tradition, it was rejected out of hand.
Sommerville concludes that, though the reality of Western prominence is troublesome to many, it should still be treated as real. It deserves careful study and consideration (Sommerville 2006, 109).