Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 364-367
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From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents
From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. By DAVID GRESS. New York: Free Press, 1998. Pp. xiv + 610. $28.00 (cloth).
One of the most impressive contributions to the recent debates on multiculturalism and the core curriculum in higher education is David Gress's From Plato to NATO. The book's humorous title is a reference to the playful moniker coined by students for those sweeping survey courses in "Western civilization" and the "Great Books" that are standard fare at Ivy League caliber institutions. For those not privileged enough to attend Princeton or Columbia, the self-taught culture vulture might peruse the bookshelf of any middle-class home and find more than sufficient sustenance in the massive and elegantly written volumes making up Will and Ariel Durant's bestseller, The Story of Civilization.
Gress's book is an attempt to explain how these panoramic surveys of Western history became such an integral component of American academic culture. So pervasive was their influence that Gress dubs these optimistic stories of moral and technological progress as "The Grand Narrative." As this expression implies, the Western civilization course, as it is customarily taught, is governed by the conventions of a literary narrative, more a combination of our present-day aesthetic and moral sensibilities than a solid or reliable account of the historical past. The story of the West, according to the Grand Narrative, was a political odyssey that began in Greece and culminated with the scientific democratic and capitalistic values of twentieth-century American Progressivism. As any beleaguered undergraduate knows, the historical narrative itself was composed of several distinct stages that mapped the itinerary of the West's democratic journey: it placed an [End Page 364] extraordinary emphasis on the political, artistic, and philosophic heritage of fifth-century Athens, passed more cursorily over Rome, early Christianity and the Middle Ages, and only regained its vigor and character with the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. For Gress, this itinerary reflects the political agenda of the American ruling class during the heyday of the Grand Narrative (1920s-1960s), which was to legitimate the modern commitment to science and industry by portraying itself as the culmination of a long Western tradition of freedom and progress.
Gress argues that the Grand Narrative ultimately displaced an older and more viable conception of history, one that was embraced by skeptical thinkers such as Montesquieu, Hume, and Tocqueville, in which Roman, Christian, and Germanic institutions were considered the essential ingredients of Western culture. This older narrative of the medieval origins of European identity was politically untenable after World War I when anti-German bias could no longer stomach the image of the freedom-loving Teutonic warrior. By the 1920s, history courses routinely portrayed the old German tribes as barbarian hordes who swept down on the Classical world and shrouded Europe in a millennium of darkness. The paradox is that the Germanic origins of Western civilization, reviled and rejected in the nationalist aftermath of the World Wars, gave way nonetheless to a curriculum that drew heavily on the German university system. The Germanic warrior was out, but German pedagogy was in. Inspired by luminaries such as Hegel and Humboldt, with their noted philhellenic sympathies, Ivy League educators soon transformed what Eliza Butler called the "tyranny of Greece over Germany" into the tyranny of Greece over America. The Germanic pedagogy, in its updated Americanized version, increasingly defined the West in terms of a Hellenic heritage devoted to the ideals of reason, freedom, and democracy.
But Gress contends that it was this very idealism and moralism that made the Grand Narrative susceptible to attack. Starting in the 1960s, campus activists began to point to the discrepancy between Western democratic values and a historical past that included more than its fair share of slavery, racism, and genocide. Western science and technology had done more, perhaps, than any...