Humanities proposal the latest in a long conflict

Feb. 23, 2016, 1:58 a.m.

The controversial proposal by The Stanford Review to establish a new Western Civilization requirement to replace Thinking Matters is the latest in a long series of conflicts over how students ought to be taught the basics of the modern intellectual tradition and what such a modern intellectual tradition ought to encompass.

Stanford’s first humanities requirement was a course titled “Problems of Citizenship” and was in effect from 1919-35. According to Daily writer Katrina Sostek’s article about the history of the humanities requirement published on Jan. 30, 2002, “The 1933 description of the ‘Problems of Citizenship’ course said that it aimed to promote a ‘zest for relating the various parts of a university program of study’ and ‘a deeper sense of the long view of history.’”

From 1935-70, the requirement transformed into a course called “History of Western Civilization.” According to Sostek’s article, “Classics professor Marsh McCall has talked to many alumni about the course. ‘They all think that Stanford’s old Western Civ program is the greatest thing they ever did in their lives,’ he said.”

The course was not free from controversy. According to a Jan. 23, 1969 article by Daily writer Barbara Hyland, efforts to get the first black history course in Stanford history certified as an option for completing part of the requirement were defeated by opposition from the history department. Assistant professor of history G. Wesley Johnson, who was part of the effort to get the course approved for the substitution, “speculated that the reason for the proposal’s rejection was that Western Civilization courses had already been set up for this spring and the substitution proposal ‘might disrupt’ the previous plans.”

From 1970-80, a more flexible three-quarter humanities requirement was put in place. This was succeeded by a Western Culture Program, which, according to Sostek, was “a freshman humanities requirement [that] was brought back in 1980 in the form of the Western Culture Program, which had a required leading list of 15 books and several different tracks.”

The Western Culture Program lasted from 1980-88 before criticism of its focus on white European works sparked a reform of the requirement into the less structured “Cultures, Ideas and Values.” According to the official Stanford administration’s “Report on the Area One Requirement” (as the humanities requirement was then called), which ran in The Daily on April 14, 1987, diversity in the humanities courses would be required. Specifically, the courses qualifying under the new program should, among other things, “study at least one culture inside and at least one outside the European family of cultures, [confront] issues relating to class, race and gender, and… include a substantial number of works by women, minorities and persons of color.”

This program was eventually dropped in favor of the Introduction to Humanities (IHUM) program, which was piloted in 1997. According to a Sept. 24, 1997 article by staff writer Daniel Wolk, “[u]nder the new program, unanimously approved by the Faculty Senate in May, each freshman will take a one-quarter introductory course taught by a team of faculty members in fall quarter and a subsequent two-quarter thematic sequence in winter and spring quarters. Freshmen will choose the initial fall quarter course before matriculating and the winter-spring sequence after arriving at Stanford.”

The transition from the Western Literature program to Culture, Ideas and Values to IHUM was marked also by shrinking reading lists. Western Literature could feature 15 book reading lists. Culture, Ideas, and Values would sometimes include 10 books on its reading lists, but IHUM included as few as five books in some of its classes.

IHUM only lasted from 1997-2011 before being replaced with the current Thinking Matters program in 2012. According to a Jan. 11, 2013 article by senior staff writer Marshall Watkins ’15, “Thinking Matters replaced Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) this year and has been warmly received by many students, but some lecturers in the program fear that it marks a shift away from a humanities education. Thinking Matters replaced the widely disliked IHUM program starting fall quarter 2012. While Thinking Matters director Russell Berman avoided attributing excessive significance to fall quarter course evaluations, he cited Thinking Matters’ one-quarter requirement — as compared to IHUM’s three — and the ability of students to choose from a larger and more diverse selection of courses as critical factors in the new program’s warm reception.”

The concerns of humanities professors were elaborated upon later in Watkins’ article. Classics professor Grant Parker “expressed concern that students’ apparent unwillingness to explore humanities courses would be detrimental to the freshman experience and criticized the lack of direction provided students under Thinking Matters.”

“The liberal education model is not entirely forgotten, but it’s seriously watered down,” Parker said. “It seems that the assumption is that the consumer is always right. Is that the best basis on which to plan a curriculum?”

It is evident from Stanford’s history that the teaching of our core intellectual history has been a dynamic, ever-changing process. Whatever the result of the current push to overhaul Stanford’s teaching of humanities, it seems possible that the form of humanities education students depart with today will be different for students a generation from now.


Contact Caleb Smith at caleb 17 ‘at’

Caleb Smith '17 is a Desk Editor from Oakland, California and is majoring in public policy. Outside the Daily, Caleb is Director of news at KZSU Stanford, the campus radio station. Have a tip or suggestion? Please contact him at caleb17 ‘at’

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