“Hey hey, ho ho! Western culture’s got to go!” In 1988, protestors at Stanford University captured national attention as they demanded the dismantling of the school’s Western Culture requirement. Newspapers lamented the change, declaring “Stanford Puts an End to Western Civilization” while President Reagan’s Secretary of Education debated Stanford’s president on national television. Ultimately, Stanford dropped Plato, Augustine and More to accommodate classes more palatable to student activists.
Today, students can fulfill their freshman humanities requirement through a single class called “The Language of Food.” The new humanities core, now named “Thinking Matters,” is so diluted that many Stanford students never read a single work of Greek, Enlightenment or other Western philosophy before earning their diplomas.
We do not know if the protesters of the 1980s envisioned the vacuous syllabi and trivial topics offered to freshmen today, but that is their legacy. Their movement succeeded in creating an education that validates all students’ narratives equally, but it has done so by depriving students of a foundation in the values of open critique and reasoned debate.
Stanford is not the only university to compromise objectivity and rigor in the name of sensitivity. A study from the National Association of Scholars revealed that, while 40 of 50 elite institutions mandated Western Civilization in 1964, the course had “disappeared entirely as a requirement” by 2010. This decline coincides with the rise of a new anti-Western ethos in higher education that embraces moral and cultural relativism while paradoxically refusing to tolerate dissent. Students and faculty from Missouri to Yale have made headlines for abandoning the tenets of personal liberty and dialogue to enforce a viewpoint in vogue with the latest trend in identity politics.
Stanford is no exception. In the past year alone, the Stanford Review, our publication, has confronted flagrant moral and ethical lapses from students and faculty alike. We fought an administrative judicial process which instructed jurors that “acting persuasive and logical” is a sign of guilt. We challenged a guest speaker on campus who claimed 9/11 was morally justified (though we defended his right to say it). And we rejected claims by fellow students that neither Israel nor the US has a right to existence. Though we may have won each of these individual battles, the pervasive acceptance of the viewpoints of our fellow students means we are losing the war.
These incidents may appear outrageous from the outside, but in a student body which neither learns nor values the Western tradition, views like these are neither uncommon nor surprising. That is why we launched an initiative at Stanford calling for the return of a Western Civilization requirement.
We believe a common foundation in a tradition of dialogue will prepare students better than comfortable echo chambers. We believe shared knowledge of Enlightenment principles will push students to debate ideas based on their merits, rather than on their emotional impact. The leaders and innovators of the future must understand the philosophers, rulers and citizens who shaped America’s past.
We have proposed a two-quarter requirement for all freshmen which will cover history from Ancient Greece to modern America and thinkers from Plato to Douglass. Two quarters of required classes isn’t sufficient to educate anyone on all the merits, shortcomings and ongoing debates about Western Civilization. But we do think our proposed requirement will establish a cornerstone upon which further studies and conversations can grow. We’re confident it will, at a minimum, benefit students more than “The Science of Mythbusters.”
Unfortunately, many of our peers do not agree. The reaction to our proposal has been hostile, vocal and self-congratulatory. Opponents aren’t just arguing that these two quarters would be a waste of time; they argue that Western Civilization itself is inherently evil. Many of our peers proudly declare that the only reason to study Western Civilization is to deconstruct and subvert it. If the entirety of Western history had consisted of slavery, warfare and subjugation, as they suggest, they would be right. They misunderstand, however, that the triumph of the West is not military prowess, but the ascendance of our belief in the freedom and equality of all people.
Ironically, the backlash against our proposal demonstrates a need for the very principles its opponents are loath to study. After witnessing repeated ad hominem attacks on our writers, a student who wrote an opinion piece supporting the inclusion of Western Civilization in a Stanford humanities program decided he could only publish anonymously. Less than an hour after releasing his article, he was suspended from his leadership position in a low-income student advocacy group as a suspected author of the piece. When the purportedly non-political organization refused to justify their decision, the author, a low-income minority student himself, came to us with evidence. Once the story had become public, his organization published a complete denial and privately “demanded that I lie by [stating they] had not suspended me,” according to the author. These events may simply be petty politics on a college campus, but they are also revealing of the ideological intolerance that has become the status quo at Stanford.
Two classes on our civilization’s ideas and history will not singlehandedly solve political problems in our student body, much less fix the racial injustice, economic inequality and political polarization that haunts our country. Our best hope for our country and our university, however, is the literature and ideas that have created rational thought, economic prosperity and personal liberty for billions. Stanford’s founding principles declare a mission to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We think it’s high time Stanford reclaims that purpose.
– Editors-in-Chief of the Stanford Review, 2013-16
Contact Harry Elliott, current EIC of the Stanford Review, at helliott ‘at’ stanford.edu