Rethinking the values of a humanist education

Feb. 29, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

The recent debate among Stanford’s undergraduate student body regarding the revival of a “Western civilization” humanities requirement has propelled me, a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures, to reflect on the value of a humanistic education. As a native of China and a sixth-year humanities Ph.D. student at Stanford, I have the “unusual” path of having studied as an English and French literature major in a liberal arts college in the Midwest before my graduate career in Chinese studies on the Farm. The core of the debate — whether or not the restoration of a West-focused curriculum is the best way to enhance the humanities education at Stanford — has made me reflect on how my own educational trajectory that encompasses many traditions has contributed to my unwavering empathy for humanity and curiosity of the world.

According to the featured reports on The Stanford Daily, student opinions are split as to whether the deliberate focus on “the West” in the new curriculum proposal is conducive to offering a solid humanistic/humanities education. Those in favor of the proposal state that it is crucial for students to devote a considerable amount of time being immersed in one single tradition, studying the triumphs and pitfalls of it in order to truly understand it. “‘Western civilization stands out because it underpins our society.’ They [The Stanford Review that proposes the new curriculum] couldn’t be more correct,” asserts an op-ed article published in The Daily on Feb. 25. Likewise, another student states, “It is precisely to bring light to the limitations and mistakes of Western thought that we should study it, because — like it or not — we are a product of it” (The Stanford Daily, Feb. 26). It seems that some students support the proposal because it can provide an opportunity to investigate deeply into one cultural tradition and that tradition — Western tradition — happens to be the pillar of the U.S. society and the force behind globalization.  

On the other hand, students who have reservations about the proposal worry that focusing narrowly on one tradition, especially the dominant one, risks marginalizing and excluding the voices of the minorities. “It’s not enough to bring in a couple of texts from authors of color and call that a well-rounded and thorough examination, nor is it enough to say that Western civilization is the ‘dominant’ civilization in history,” protests a student in a Daily article written by Fangzhou Liu and Jacob Nierenberg on Feb. 26. Some students are concerned with the potentially negative effect a Western civilization requirement may have on students, as its assertion of the superiority of Western traditions may be harmful to our campus culture of inclusivity.

As someone who has received an excellent liberal arts education for her undergraduate degree, I believe that the best education should expose students to a myriad of ideas, values and traditions, allowing them to see how these ideas interact and even conflict, without imposing one set of ideas as the standard. If there is anything an education absolutely needs to teach, it is perhaps the ability to tolerate difference.

I remember that when I first arrived in America from China 10 years ago as a new student in college, I was presented with dazzling ideas that I didn’t at first consider relevant to my life. In a class called “Cross-cultural Communication,” we talked about how race, gender and class intersect to shape human society and suppress certain groups. In that class, we read an article titled “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough” by Anne Fausto-Sterling. This article addresses the complexity of human sexuality and the construction of gender identities, something totally outside of the scope of my normal thinking as a recent high school graduate. Yet when the professor was patiently explaining the “five sexes” to us and encouraging us to reassess our usual way of categorizing people into the male-female dichotomy, my classmates and I quickly came to realize that society’s conventional ways of classifying people had left out numerous members who did not meet the expectations of the majority. The “five sexes” was my first lesson in college, and it taught me and my classmates the value of respecting those whose sexual identities and gender make-up were different from our own.

Today, with gay movements achieving new triumphs, knowledge such as the “five sexes” is no longer surprising, and the diversity of human sexuality has been increasingly celebrated. Yet without educators paving the way to new knowledge, how could we have arrived at the liberation of the rights for the LGBT community? Therefore, the true value of a humanistic education should be its power to inspire positive change. Students’ exposure to various ideas and mutually challenging perspectives provide the window to open up the space for change. Focusing singularly on one tradition or one perspective would not inspire students’ courage to bring change, no matter how thoroughly we examine that tradition — because no alternative ways of thinking and doing are provided.

Furthermore, my educational upbringing in both Eastern and Western traditions has taught me how valuable it is to respect and learn from the traditions different from one’s own. As a French minor in college, in one of my French literature classes, we had to read Rousseau’s reflections on private property and how it corrupted human nature by making people more self-interested. As we read into the French Enlightenment thinker’s impassioned passages, I couldn’t help but think of the Chinese ancient philosopher, Laozi (6th century B.C.E.). Both Laozi and Rousseau believed that excessive pursuits of wealth and resources were the roots of evil in human society, and they advocated for a return to nature (ziran) and simplicity to salvage the human condition. Without forays into a different culture, how can we arrive at fascinating discoveries such as this? Without stepping outside of our cultural comfort zones and familiarizing ourselves with what’s out there, how can we see the many affinities of human thinking across regional, religious and historical divides?

The more we learn about how different traditions of the world speak to each other, the more we will realize what a shared destiny we all face as humans. Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian professor teaching political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has written extensively about how ancient China’s Confucian thought can contribute to global prosperity today. Confucian thinkers from 2,000 years ago were already envisioning a united world (datong shijie) in which there is no racial or social hierarchy, and where the old, the homeless, the widowed and the widowers would all be sheltered and taken care of. This vision of human unity is not unique to the Chinese, but finds its echoes in traditions as diverse as the Baha’i faith that originated in Persia in the 19th century.

Therefore, I firmly believe that a truly well-rounded humanistic education goes beyond committing students to one single tradition, but rather, encourages them to understand the overlaps between cultures and to address the discrepancies. An ideal humanistic education would be more than a couple of course requirements, but would offer a systematic way of thinking — it should be a powerhouse that instills students with the respect for diversity and the intelligence to understand and articulate difference.

The students who believe that learning about the essentials of Western civilization will help us better understand the current world and how to avoid past mistakes are well-intended. The problem only occurs when an exclusive or predominant focus on the West precludes the opportunity to examine and put into context why the West is what is today. Even globalization, believed by many to be a unique product of “Western culture,” is not a Western invention. The ancient Silk Road, which connected East and South Asia to Central Asia and Europe, made possible the symphonies of conversations between different cultures, religions and peoples. That was well before the Western domination of the world at the height of its colonial enterprise in the modern era.

As students of Stanford, we ought to know what had come before the West became the “ruler” of the world, and what will come next. Such knowledge cannot be obtained if not for a truly liberating, humanistic education that is unapologetically tolerant of differences and sees diversity as contributing to the integrity of humanity throughout history.


Contact Yanshuo Zhang at zhangys ‘at’

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