A similar problem has arisen in the course offerings of many universities, where “Western Civ” courses, have been receding lately, usually in favor of “world history” courses. This is a reflection in the relative decline of the importance of Europe in US culture, evidenced by a geopolitical “pivot to Asia,” an increase in students who look to Latin America, Africa, or various parts of Asia for their cultural heritage, and a recognition (guilt?) that several centuries of triumphalist European civilizational claims is more than enough.
At SF State, Western Civ is only offered as an introductory survey course, on a par with World History or US History. This special status for a non-“home” region is rooted in a tradition of US pedagogy that privileges Europe. Comparable courses covering China or East Asia, Islam, or Africa are all upper-division courses. I can’t justify this special status, so I don’t offer the course any more.
In the early 20C, within a world-view of the “American Century,” with the US being seen as the “Rome” to Europe’s “Greece,” such a course made more sense. If History asks “How did we get here?” and the “we” were white Americans predominantly Christian and of European descent, then “Western Civ” offered a plausible answer. Sweeping aside the presence and contributions of cultures from the ancient Middle East, India, and Egypt enabled us to put the Parthenon on an altar (as it were). Forgetting that Jesus and his Apostles were Semitic sanitized a European Christianity. Downplaying the fact that the writings of Classical Greece were reintroduced to Europe only because medieval Islamic cultures preserved them draws a neat, if inaccurate, line around the “Continent” (actually a large peninsula on the northwestern corner of Afro-Eurasia).
And that’s only the foundations. By the time we get to the “modern” (i.e., since ~1500) era, a Euro-centric focus enabled a characterization in which Europeans were the active force in history to which everyone else just responded or submitted. Inventions, conquests, and economic growth all fell into place. The antecedents of Modernity are elegantly found in 1-2-3 combination: the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. Europe’s calamitous early 20C is presented as a temporary interruption in Western “progress,” with the torch carried on by the US through the late 20C.
These are all important developments and are included in my Modern World History Survey, Europeans play a larger role than their numbers alone would dictate. More recent versions of Western Civ in the past several decades have expanded the scope of historical forces and individuals who affected/contributed to European culture, including recognizing the impact of European empires on their subjects (and vice-versa).
All well-and-good in terms of the evolution of historical course offerings. More broadly, there is much to be said for ridding ourselves of claims of moral superiority (aka Eurocentrism or the US version) when the evidence shows Europeans’ good fortune in terms of geography (access to coal, continental topology, climate) seems to be the critical difference. There’s no question but that Europeans used the term “civilization” to demarcate their own culture from those of other (lesser/barbarian) groups.
But it’s another matter to dispose of the idea of civilization itself as the first-mentioned reviewer seemed to think was an appropriate consequence of this ‘re-think.’ The European flavor of “civilization” has to bear the burden of having leveraged unprecedented (technological and material) power to the (unprecedented) detriment of other groups. However, I rather doubt that they (we?) are any worse in a moral sense than any other “civilization” (e.g., Chinese, Hindu, Mayan) or groups of humans whose social organization did not last as long or encompass as many people or cultural components. Even if we were much more impactful.
Similarly, without taking on the question of whether the human move from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists (another way of defining “civilization”) was a good move morally or otherwise (paleo diet, anyone?), I’m not sure there’s much point in criticizing “civilization” as a general human social form as seems to be implicit in the reviewer’s reference. Establishing a culture implies some degree of social cohesion which, per se, leads to a world-view built on “us and them.” Denigration of the “other” seems to be a pretty consistent human response, historically speaking: “My gods (music, food, laws, football team) are better than yours.” Again, modern Europeans saw themselves as “civilized” and others as “barbarians; but so did the Chinese and the ancient Greeks, among others.
Indeed, as we look at Europe after WWII, it’s hard to see an alternative to “civilization” as an organizing principle. There was challenge enough in finding food and housing, in establishing some form of social order, in ratcheting down the oppressive psychic stresses of the War (and the immediately preceding Great Depression and less immediately preceding First World War). “Civilization,” at least at a generic level, seemed like a necessary predicate to living and, in its many attractive attributes (social cohesion, music, cafes, improved standards of living), more than desirable.
So, there is much to be said for “civilization,” both generally and in the particular case of 20C Europe. That particular versions had considerable shortcomings shows a need for cultural improvement (something civilizations can be good at), but is not a basis for going back to foraging and nomadry.