This past Monday, the Stanford Review released a petition calling for the reform of the humanities curriculum through the reintroduction of a uniform two-quarter Western Civilization (Western Civ) requirement to replace the menu of one-quarter “Thinking Matters” courses in freshman year. The petition was, to say the least, controversial.
The ensuing conversations attacked the Review for the tone of its proposal and its claims of Western superiority. The arguments quickly became heated, but neither the proposal’s most vocal proponents nor its opponents have encouraged productive dialogue. Attackers of the requirement have channeled their concerns into sarcasm and personal attacks at the Review writers’ politics. In response, the Review and its supporters have continued to reply with the rhetorical hyperbole that sparked the argument in the first place.
The most unfortunate part of the Review’s proposal was that it could have presented its ideas in a reasonable manner; it simply chose not to. The Review offered two pieces in support of the Western Civilization requirement: an extended manifesto and a short proposal. Throughout the controversy, it has been criticized for attempting to whitewash “Western civilization” and limit the Western canon to its mainstream.
But the manifesto, unlike the petition, does show a willingness to critically address both historical and modern shortcomings of Western civilization. Unfortunately, the petition’s pontificating tone and oversimplified arguments have stifled productive conversation. By offering two clashing perspectives, the Review ensured that neither would be taken seriously.
We believe, nonetheless, that the Review’s proposal raised questions worth asking: How can Stanford best prepare its students to have a positive impact on their global community, and how can we make sure the humanities requirement is a first step in that direction?
First and foremost, any reform to the humanities curriculum must acknowledge student individuality by giving us freedom to choose what we learn. We aren’t cookie-cutter individuals; we shouldn’t strive for a cookie-cutter education. Instead, we should embrace our diversity of backgrounds and interests through courses that allow us to grow in unique and unexpected ways. A blanket humanities requirement simply can’t achieve that.
We agree wholeheartedly that to be effective citizens of the world, Stanford graduates must be able to place their innovations and social choices in a global context. We also agree that, for better or for worse, ideas generated by the West dominate the world in which we live. But we don’t agree that a Western Civilization requirement is the best way to give students that context.
If “our Stanford education fails to prepare us,” it’s not because we have an insufficient understanding of a Western timeline. It’s because humanities requirements as they stand can’t ensure that students will expand their critical thinking to areas directly related to their prospective fields. We don’t want Stanford to force students to study key moral questions in ways that don’t speak to what they do on a day-to-day basis.
A more suitable solution would be to give students the opportunity to learn about the national and international contexts associated with their disciplines. Students need a strong frame of reference for the field they’ve chosen, be it computer science or sociology. The Editorial Board proposes a departmental requirement for each major that places learning in a historical and societal context.
In an effort to highlight the issues with a specifically Western Civ requirement, the conversation seems to have lost sight of the question the Review set out to answer in the first place. If we really want a productive conversation around how to better our education, the first step will undoubtedly be shifting our focus from the first attempted answer, to the broader conversation the Stanford community deserves. Allowing the Review’s initial proposition to dominate the conversation is the educational equivalent of reading the syllabus without taking the course. You can do it, but you’ll miss most of the point.
Contact the Editorial Board at [email protected]