In 2006, the John W. Pope Foundation agreed to sponsor six lectures at UNC-Chapel Hill on the topic of “Renewing the Western Tradition.” The next lecture will be held on October 29.
Anyone attending the lectures so far—or even looking over the list of speakers and topics—can see that UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences views “renewing the Western tradition” in a way quite different from the way that most members of the public would interpret it. It is a view probably at odds with the donor’s intent, although the donor is not commenting right now.
The dictionary definition of renewing is “resuming,” “restoring,” or “reviving.” The public (a major part of the audience sought for these lectures) would expect a series in “Renewing the Western Tradition” to give attention to the strengths of Western civilization, especially because they are often neglected on university campuses.
Those strengths include, among others, the long process—beginning at least with Plato and Aristotle and probably with early Judaism—that developed freedom of thought and freedom of scientific inquiry, separated religious conscience from political obeisance, and laid the foundations of economic freedom and democratic governance. These forces led to unprecedented levels of liberty and economic growth in the world. One result is, for example, that today in the countries that have economic freedom—stemming from the Western tradition—the earnings of the poorest ten percent of residents are ten times as large as the earnings of the poorest ten percent in the countries that have the least economic freedom.
But the UNC College of Arts and Sciences seems to think that “renewing the Western tradition” means analyzing its subtleties or comparing it to non-Western traditions, or even just pointing out its faults.
To illustrate the differences, here is a list of the past Pope lecturers, beginning in 2008:
Elaine Pagels. She is a brilliant scholar, yes, who made her reputation by writing, and praising, the Gnostic gospels. Those early Christian books were rejected when the New Testament was “canonized” in the fourth century, primarily because they reflected the heresy that Christ did not actually have a bodily existence. However fascinating, they are a sideline to the actual Western tradition from the fourth century on—and Pagels’ enthusiasm for them suggests that she believes that the actual direction that the Christian Church took was wrong.
Kwame Anthony Appiah. He is a Princeton philosopher who explores cultural relationships between the West’s “cosmopolitanism” and the rest of the world. (Although his writing is relatively accessible, the lecture he gave was highly intellectual—the “25,000-feet-up” view of the issue, one listener said).
Stephen Greenblatt. Author of a Shakespeare biography, Greenblatt focuses on the cultural contexts of literature, and he co-wrote a version of a supposedly Shakespearean “lost play,” Cardenio. In his UNC talk, Greenblatt recounted his project to get theatrical groups around the world to adapt and then perform this version of Cardenio—revealing the tension between universal themes and local constraints. There was little about Shakespeare in the talk.
On October 29, 2009, the speaker will be Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia University. His topic is “How Could Anyone Defend Slavery? Moral Crisis in Antebellum America.”
Delbanco is the editor of The Portable Abraham Lincoln, and the talk was originally billed as “on Abraham Lincoln.” We cannot intuit the content of his speech from the title, of course. But selecting such a sensationalist topic—the moral crisis over the greatest ethical lapse in the history of the United States—would seem to be motivated by a desire to focus on the failings of Western history. This is in spite of the fact that the first anti-slavery movement in the history of the world originated in the West—in Great Britain, which ultimately ended the slave trade.
Two other speakers have been selected for this series. They are Iain Fenlon of Cambridge University, a specialist in Renaissance music, and Averil Cameron, a professor of late antiquity and Byzantine history at Oxford. The dates of their lectures have not been set.
If it hasn’t become clear already, the Pope Foundation has no role in the selection. Equally clear is the fact that those who select the lecturers intend to stress the value of intercultural “conversation” and—it would seem—to demote or cavil with the benefits of Western traditions.
But Clayton Koelb, chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and head of the committee that selects the Pope lecturers, was shocked when I suggested that. The committee is composed of seven faculty members in fine arts, humanities, and history, most of them “distinguished” or “named” professors. Koelb said that the committee sought as speakers only respected international humanities scholars who also have a high public profile.
It was certainly “not our intention” to treat the Western tradition negatively, said Koelb. And in his view, no speaker has done that.
Were the Gnostic gospels merely a sideline to the Western tradition, as I stated? No, he said, emphatically. The selection of the books of the New Testament is “extraordinarily important” to the history of Western thought. Pagels’ studies of the Gnostic gospels help us understand “how the canonical books relate to their cultural context—how much their selection was intentional and how much was pure chance.” Better understanding of Mary Magdalene, for example, who has a much greater presence in the Gnostic gospels than in the canonical Bible, should appeal “to anybody interested in the history of the Western tradition.”
And Kwame Anthony Appiah’s talk was “extremely positive” about Western traditions, said Koelb. He admitted that Greenblatt’s talk may have been “more about Stephen Greenblatt than it was about Shakespeare,” but then, once a speaker is invited, the school doesn’t have a lot of control.
“The theme is ‘renewing the Western tradition,’ which implies elements of both conservation and innovation,” he wrote in an email. “That’s the balance we've wanted to strike.”
Nor do the choices have anything to do with the turbulent history that preceded the gift to the school, Koelb said.
That history began in 2003 when UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of its $1.8 billion Carolina First campaign, sought a contribution from Art Pope and his father, John William Pope, both alumni, to support study of Western civilization. At first, the discussion focused on supporting a faculty-created undergraduate curriculum that would result in either a certificate (a small but focused area of study) or a minor degree. The Pope Foundation gave a $25,000 grant to the faculty to develop such a curriculum.
But some faculty members resisted such a grant, for three main reasons. First, they didn’t want to accept funds from a conservative foundation, which the Pope Foundation is considered to be. Second, they didn’t really want students to take courses in Western civilization (the faculty rejected such courses as requirements for the new “general education” curriculum, which went into effect in 2006). Third, they resented the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy for its criticism of courses taught at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Pope Center is separate from the Pope Foundation, but receives the majority of its funding from the Pope Foundation.
The public face of this dispute became somewhat nasty, although it had its comical elements, too, as the university kept trying to enlist the faculty’s acceptance, on the one hand, while diluting the proposal to the Popes on the other. In the end, the Pope Foundation gave the university approximately $2.3 million. The bulk of the gift went for an endowment to improve the pay of assistant football coaches. The remainder was for academic projects.
I don’t doubt Koelb’s sincerity when he says that the committee looked for the best speakers that $15,000 per lecture could supply. But the choices reveal a chasm between what I believe most readers of this essay think about Western civilization and what the academy, as reflected by the chosen speakers, thinks of it.
To many people, a lecture series about renewing the Western tradition would seek to reawaken interest in the work of past writers and thinkers of that tradition—perhaps even to celebrate it. Scholars in the tradition of the late Allan Bloom, such as professors Harvey Mansfield at Harvard or Ralph McInerney at Notre Dame, come to mind. I concede, however, that the faculty would want younger academics as speakers.
Are there brilliant younger scholars in the humanities who actually see value in the Western traditions of literature, thought, and history? Certainly there are. But they probably come across as conservative, so they don’t get published in the New York Review of Books, as Andrew Delbanco does, or receive MacArthur “genius” awards, as Elaine Pagels did, and therefore they don’t have a public profile of the kind sought by the committee.
Perhaps a bigger hurdle is that the humanities faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill prefer multi-layered, subtle analyses, like Appiah’s, that challenge what they view as conventional wisdom, even though in his case the result is generally an endorsement of a Western-inspired world-view. Appreciating and explaining the benefits drawn from Western tradition are, apparently, too conventional—perhaps even bordering on simplistic.
So the faculty carried out the Pope Lecture series on “Renewing the Western Tradition” as they saw fit. But their view of “renewal,” like much of academic scholarship today, is a long way from what I believe the broader educated public expects. Exactly what is so repellent about teaching Western civilization as a force for good? Could somebody, somewhere, actually celebrate the strengths of Western civilization?