Some ideas for that Western Civilization requirement

Feb. 24, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

On Sunday evening, many Stanford students received an email from the Stanford Review with the subject line, “It’s time to revive Stanford’s humanities core.” (If you didn’t get it, you can check out their manifesto here). They detail their frustrations with Thinking Matters and plans to replace the requirement by reviving a two-quarter series entitled “Western Civilization.” This series would explore the historical impact and significance of the technology and philosophy of Western thinkers and ideally would instill all Stanford graduates with the drive to “ask questions and enhance individual liberty.”

Now, some may question the wisdom of reviving a program that was deliberately revised following student protests. But hey, there’s nothing like looking to the past for good ways to plan for the future, right? And the more I think about it, the more I warm to the idea of learning more about Western civilization. With that in mind, I’ve come up with some ideas for a potential curriculum.

We can start off by exploring and analyzing the political and philosophical foundations of Western civilization. This would include examining theories of capitalism and how these theories have been used as a basis to justify socio-economic subjugation. We could analyze theories of eugenics and scientific racism, and how these helped justify Western colonization by arguing that non-Westerners were in some way “scientifically” less than human. We could also historically examine the use of Christianity, too, as a theological basis for conversion and colonization (maybe a field trip to one of California’s many missions would be appropriate).

From there, we can study the history and impact of these theories on peoples around the world. We can more thoroughly examine the genocide of Native Americans by Western colonists, for instance. We could examine the slave trade, the scramble for Africa and the political implications that these acts had on establishing and maintaining Western empires. Maybe an interesting project would be exploring how the earliest public police agencies in the American South were established to capture runaway slaves. This unit would continue until the present day to look at what impact these theories have had over the course of hundreds of years and what effects they still have today.

Finally, we can dive into Stanford’s own history and examine the ethics of the University today. We could have a series exploring the philosophy of Stanford eugenicists like David Starr Jordan or Father Junipero Serra and his treatment of the local Ohlone people. It would be especially relevant and important to explore ethics in engineering, perhaps by examining notable Stanford alum Herbert Hoover ’95 and his work in mining companies around the world. His globetrotting, mineral exploitation adventures included several years in South Africa where, through their brutal control of black African laborers, the gold and diamond mining industries helped form the foundations of apartheid. We could also engage in a serious discussion about divestment from the fossil fuel industry and question Stanford’s role in perpetuating systems of oppression.

These are just ideas to get the conversation started; I’m sure with some design thinking we can develop a curriculum that’s really special.

The Review notes in its email, “Western civilization stands out because it underpins our society.” They couldn’t be more correct. Whether we like it or not, without the empire that Leland Stanford built, without the Native Ohlone land that Stanford is built on, without the Chinese laborers who helped build his railroads, we would not be studying at this university today. And while some might protest that we have been taught Western civilization almost exclusively for the entirety of our education in the United States, rarely (if ever) have we been given the opportunity to critically reflect on it in school. At present, these lessons are often taught within student communities or via student initiatives such as “Who’s Teaching Us?” but are found less often in Stanford curriculum in general. What better opportunity for Stanford students than to learn all this from some of the best faculty in the world?

Some have balked at the idea of seriously refocusing Stanford’s humanities core on Western civilization. Personally, though, I’m excited about the potential to explore Western civilization more critically. Like The Review declares, “Stanford’s future depends on getting this conversation right.” If we are to truly depart from this University as global-minded and ethical citizens, it is imperative that we explore the extent to which Western civilization has caused historical trauma, perpetuates further inequalities today and privileges us as Stanford students.

— Alex Ramsey

Contact Alex Ramsey at aramsey5 ‘at’


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