SLE challenges the boundaries of the Western canon

Jan. 26, 2024, 12:19 a.m.

Dante, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Zhuangzi. 

Not all of these writers might be considered “Western,” yet each of them are featured on this quarter’s syllabus for Stanford’s Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program. This reflects a growing effort within SLE to embrace diversity despite the program’s academic focus on “great works […] from the Western tradition.” 

SLE, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is an integrated residential and educational program that houses 90 frosh in East Florence Moore (FloMo), where they attend weekly lectures and discussions together. It has long faced criticisms for centering works by Western thinkers in its curriculum. 

Jeremy Sabol, who has served as the program’s associate faculty director for the past 20 years, said that SLE was “intentionally, purposefully created as a Western tradition course,” rather than a world cultures course. However, he said that faculty are focusing closely on how they can make the SLE student experience more equitable for an increasingly diverse student body who are interested in alternative perspectives on the traditional canon. 

“The way in which we think about diversity — and the complexity that comes with the word ‘diversity’ and what it means — has become a much larger part of our conversation than it was 15 years ago,” Sabol said. 

Conflicts over the canon

SLE’s focus on the Western canon can be traced back to the program’s creation in 1974. According to Sabol, SLE was founded in response to the social upheavals of the 1970s, including the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and ensuing student protests. 

Mark Mancall, professor emeritus of history and SLE’s co-founder, chose to create a residential course on Western civilization to help students process the current cultural moment in the United States within a broader historical context.

“We are the products of this culture,” Mancall told The Daily in 1978. “Even though we may have ties to other cultures, we all live in Western culture.” 

For the next few decades, SLE’s curriculum remained focused on authors considered to be part of the Western tradition, with occasional non-Western texts like the Quran or the Bhagavad-Gita being included in syllabi around the 2000s.

The first significant challenge to SLE’s grounding in the Western canon came in 2016 from the student activist group Who’s Teaching Us (WTU), which demanded the inclusion of diverse authors within the curriculum. According to Sabol, WTU representatives met frequently with SLE administrators to voice their concerns about the lack of representation for non-Western or marginalized voices in the program. 

This led to the creation of a new student-run course titled “Expanding the Curriculum” (ETC), which sought to “bridge SLE texts with modernity and challenge them within alternative contexts.” The program’s curriculum in 2016, which spanned topics from decolonization to the erasure of Native American history from the Western canon, aimed to ask the question of “what the [Western] canon is, and why.” 

ETC has since been discontinued, but the course has left a legacy of SLE students actively engaging with faculty to challenge and diversify the program’s readings. Milly Wong ’27, an international student from Hong Kong, said SLE section leaders and faculty welcome students to dive deeper into non-Western texts.

This year’s curriculum did incorporate the perspectives of Chinese and South Asian writers alongside Plato and Aristotle, to the enjoyment of students like Aiden Pinuelas ’27.

“SLE advertises itself as being the course on the Western canon, but we also don’t live in a purely Western world and shouldn’t just be learning from a Western perspective,” Pinuelas said. “I think the question to figure out is, what does it mean to have a Western canon course that does not only have a Western focus?” 

An ethos of change

These conversations are hardly unique to Stanford. Efforts to diversify our understanding within the Western canon have gained some ground over time, with prominent 20th century writers like W.E.B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon featured in SLE’s curriculum.

By drawing connections between ancient Greco-Roman philosophers and diverse contemporary thinkers from the West and beyond, SLE Faculty Director Marisa Galvez hopes to leave students with an understanding of the Western tradition as something that is “constantly changing” rather than a static literary canon. 

“We try to help students think about categories such as Western and non-Western, Black and White, and we try to make that complex,” Galvez said.

For Galvez, including non-Western texts in the SLE curriculum is an opportunity to show that the Western tradition is “one among many” and should not be privileged over any other tradition. Still, these works are intended to give SLE students an alternative perspective on the West, rather than provide them with a thorough understanding of different world cultures. 

Students expressed varied perspectives on this intention. Audrey Jung ’27 felt that SLE has provided her with an inviting community and the tools needed to critically understand readings across cultures.

“They don’t try to spoon-feed us ideas,” Jung said.

However, despite SLE’s increasingly diverse reading list, some students found that they were not able to express their own non-Western perspectives within the program. 

Selin Ertan ’25, who participated in SLE during her frosh year, said that she felt her perspective as an international student from Turkey was not always respected by other students.

She said that students from the U.S. often applied a “modern-day American perspective” to Western and non-Western texts alike, rather than trying to understand the cultural context that the works came from. This was particularly salient to Ertan in class discussions of the Quran, during which she felt she could not express her opinions as a student from the Middle East. 

“Including more books from different canons would be very nice,” Ertan said. “But it would be completely useless so long as students don’t want to hear those perspectives.”

The experiences of students like Ertan and Jung are important to faculty like lecturer Michaela Hulstyn, who emphasized the importance of such feedback being the driving force behind SLE. Hulstyn described the faculty’s relationship with students as a four-year conversation about what SLE is doing and how they could do it better. 

“That’s really one of the main ethos of the program — change, a philosophy for change,” Hulstyn said.  

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