There is very little I enjoy more than discussing the history of western civilization with my son. He has a keen mind and a limitless curiosity about our past and we can spend many hours picking apart historical events and personalities.
He is unusual. Most ninth graders wouldn’t spend a minute with their parents discussing the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India or the fall of the Shoguns in Japan.
He attends an Orthodox Jewish day school in Los Angeles, well known for its out-of-the- box thinking on education and its emphasis on character development. Lately we have been preparing for his history exam, which will provide him with most of his grade for the year.
It was in reviewing his teacher’s notes and comments on his papers and assignments that I began becoming somewhat concerned. In one particular assignment, with which I had helped him, she had downgraded him for his comments on the value of Westernization in the 19th Century and his insistence that colonialism had actually brought some good things to foreign countries . She correctly pointed out the depredations of King Leopold II in the Congo and the avariciousness of many colonial settlers from South Africa to China. But it was her sneering comments about the moral and cultural equivalence of Western civilization to the native cultures encountered during the colonialist era, that got me riled.
There is a tacit acceptance in our schools that modern European history is irredeemably tainted by the presence of racism and supremacist ideologies among the Western nations who colonized the world. Unfortunately there is a concomitant failure to adequately appreciate the spread of the ideals of individual liberty, democracy and the belief in the sanctity of life which Western expansion also facilitated.
It is true that some terrible crimes were committed in the cause of human progress by Westerners seeking to bring Western values to native peoples. But this history should not be allowed to shade our appreciation of the fact that there would be no commonly agreed standard for human rights, no emphasis on human dignity and no commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts without the colonists’/ imperialists’ intrepid work.
We live in a world where the legacy of the West comes under daily assault and it is brought about largely by those who feel that Westerners have something to atone for.
Perhaps I need to speak to my son’s history teacher about this, but for the rest of us, it might pay to spend some time remembering what the world once looked like without Western intervention and whether we would like to go back there.