History not only by the victors

Feb. 23, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

In the recently published Stanford Review article “The Case for a Western Civilization Requirement at Stanford,” the authors argue for the importance of studying Western Civilization to address an “education in crisis.” After all, “our alumni [are] innovating in Silicon Valley, making policy in Washington and investing on Wall Street.” Without the deep knowledge provided by a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement (which civilizations are even Western?) in their freshman year of college, how would such presumably accomplished alumni have “the historical knowledge necessary to grasp their actions’ implications and responsibly shape the future”? Not only does their proposal do almost nothing to fix a deep-seated imbalance in modern collegiate education, but it also perpetuates a fundamentally Eurocentric approach in American education’s treatment of the humanities.

It is important to recognize the educational background of the vast majority of Stanford undergraduates from the American educational system. For these students, as well as many internationals, their humanities education has been almost exclusively focused on Western societies. After elementary and middle school years filled with Western history and literature, American high schoolers typically take U.S. history, government/economics and either European history or world history. The establishment of African, Central or South American and Asian civilizations are thus functionally excluded from most high school curricula. Indeed, civilizations from these areas only appear when they interact with Western civilizations, and their histories are framed either through the scope of this interaction or through very ancient times. How many Central or South American civilizations were discussed other than the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs? How many world history curricula extensively discuss Africa apart from the Middle Passage? Unfortunately, “history written by the victors” characterizes contemporary primary historical education far too well.

Of course, the victors write history for a reason: It is undeniable that Western thought has substantially impacted society, particularly through the technological advances and political freedoms the authors identify. Simultaneously, though, it has contributed to rampant racism, sexism and global economic inequality. The authors acknowledge this obvious imperfection by stating that their proposed course “will not gloss over racial oppression and colonization.” In particular, The Review’s authors argue that understanding “the West’s history of colonization and racial oppression is also essential to understanding why the events at Yale and Mizzou arose in the first place,” and that on-campus discussions of these issues must occur “brimming with historical references, discussions of centuries-old trends and new context.” This clearly begs the question: Which “historical references,” “centuries-old trends” and “new context” must be developed to address such brutal excesses of Western society? For The Review, the only relevant sources come from Western society itself.

On the other hand, perhaps the best starting points lie in the traditions that are largely ignored for the first 15 years of most Stanford students’ educations. Of course, Western civilization has much to contribute as well. However, deliberate omission of non-Western thought arbitrarily and detrimentally ignores many substantial contributions in confronting the root of many societal problems. The authors notably claim that “Western values of free speech, rationalism and individual liberty fueled the intellectual destruction of colonialism in Western and other societies.” This grossly unsubstantiated claim blatantly insults, among others, the post-colonial, feminist, anti-racist and Marxist movements that challenge many of the worst elements of Western thought. Though discussing the “Western innovation” called “reason,” these movements did not rely on Western stalwarts like Locke, Hume and Plato. For instance, feminist authors working in critical international relations have questioned the epistemological basis of claims to rationality and objectivity: The rational cannot be separated from the cultural filters that color decision-making. Moreover, strands of critical race theory disavow “Western institutions” altogether, arguing that the “tools of the Western tradition” inevitably reify systemic inequalities that found these superstructures. For The Review’s authors, these critiques do not merit the attention of college students. They would rather that, like “Du Bois, Douglass and Beauvoir,” critique “use logic and free speech to assail society’s racist elements.” But contrary to their beliefs, such basic tenets of argumentation are far from exclusive to Western thought.

We certainly agree that the humanities should play a larger role in a Stanford education. However, a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement will only promote an education that is fundamentally anti-emancipatory in nature. Restricting critique to conventional Western thinking will prevent alternative, potentially revolutionary modes of thought from emerging within university spaces. After all, what if the problem lies within “Western institutions” themselves? Rather than calls for reformism, perhaps we must re-conceptualize the value systems that underlie liberal education. These alternative approaches will only be ignored by implementing the unidimensional humanities education of the Western Civilization curriculum.

– Zach Rosenthal and Debnil Sur


Contact Zach Rosenthal at zachary9 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Debnil Sur at debnil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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