Week 1 post for Western Civilization Class

This is what I wrote for my weekly forum post in the Western Civilization class at Tohono O’odham Community College:


What is Civilization?

According to our textbook (page xiv), “… urban institutions are central to civilization. Civilizations are also said to be characterized by bureaucratic governments, stratified social systems, long-distance trade, and specialized technologies such as metalworking and writing.” This definition has problems of course, because real-world cultures often do not fit this paradigm cleanly.

I first became aware of this problem after reading the book The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, which in part focused on the limitations of the concept of civilization when applied to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and how the commonly believed progression of societies (from hunter-gatherer to agricultural and its resulting urban centers) is not a consistent phenomenon. To prove their point, the authors used the examples of societies that engaged in massive building projects (but that did not have extreme social stratification), societies that did not engage in agriculture but did engage in long-distance trade, or societies that engaged in certain forms of agriculture but that did not develop grain-oriented urban centers.

It is for this reason that I prefer to think of “civilization” that I much prefer another definition provided in our textbook: “Civilization is simply an elaborate form of the cultural behavior that is an innate characteristic of human beings and (to a lesser degree) the higher primates. The goal of that behavior is the preservation and enhancement of life.”

What is “the West?”

This is another complicated question. Normally it is understood by scholars to refer to Europe and surrounding areas (sometimes including North Africa, the Middle East, etc, but also sometimes referring to colonial areas that are today dominated by European culture), but this definition also has some challenges, most notably in focusing the attention on the European part of the equation, when in fact Western Societies were deeply influenced by the peoples they encountered in the process of colonization (this is discussed at length in the Dawn of Everything book cited above).

What is the value in studying Western Civilization?

I do not think there is value in studying Western Civilization in the old way it was often taught, focusing on a Eurocentric way of seeing the world and then judging the rest of the world through this critical lens. But I do think there is value in critically studying Western civilization, asking tough questions about how the common Western cultural heritage and its baggage (including cultural elements such as religion, foodways, language, economic and political structures, etc.) affect us, but also how these cultural elements are impacted by other civilizations and traditions.

By jmb

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