The Drive to Put Western Civ Back in the College Curriculum

Ashley Thorne

This article was originally published in the New York Post.

Most college students, we’re told, want easy As, cheap beer and free condoms. Not many care about the quality of their education.

Stanford students want more. They’re asking the school to require a course on Western civilization, from Plato to Galileo to Du Bois.

The editorial board of The Stanford Review has circulated a petition for a mandatory course on “the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.” More than 370 students signed the petition, qualifying it to be voted on by the entire student body in April.

Nearby UC Berkeley offers courses on Western civilization, and even science-oriented Cal Tech does, too. But at Stanford, outside of a boutique liberal-arts program, no course like this is offered at all. Stanford’s curriculum used to have more spine.

In 1964, 15 of the 50 premier universities in America — including Stanford — required students to take a survey of Western civilization. All 50 offered the course, and nearly all of them (41) offered it as a way to satisfy some requirement.

But in the 1980s, minority students and faculty at Stanford asserted that requiring students to take the Western civ survey was implicitly racist. Jesse Jackson marched with an army of protesters chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

In 1988, away it went. Stanford then began requiring a course on a non-Western culture. By 2010, none of the 50 top universities required Western civilization, and 34 didn’t even offer the course.

Stanford students want it back. And they don’t simply want to dust off a shelved syllabus.

The Review writers, led by editor-in-chief Harry Elliott, seek a new way to study old ideas. Students want to know the good — the legacies of reason, freedom and innovation. But they also want to know the bad — the skeletons of wars, slavery and the Holocaust.

They also recognize that we seek equal rights and individual choice because we have inherited Western ideas about freedom and human dignity.

Why study Western civilization? As these students argue in their manifesto, by knowing the West we can understand how knowledge has grown over time; how dictatorships rise and fall; how ideas we now presuppose took many years and much struggle to gain traction; and why these ideas matter. Without such knowledge, students will take the heritage of their civilization for granted and be unable, or unwilling, to defend it.

A course in Western thought also provides an underpinning for the rest of students’ college education and their careers afterward. Many graduates realize too late their education was a hodgepodge of interesting-sounding but unrelated courses.

The history of the West lays a foundation on which to build more specialized knowledge of art, literature, science, politics, philosophy and economics.

No matter what field students enter, they are well-served throughout their lives if they know how we got here. They can understand Donald Trump more clearly if they’ve read Machiavelli. They can see why it matters that Bernie Sanders is an intellectual descendent of Karl Marx.

They can recognize old arguments, learn from the mistakes of the past and apply what they’ve learned from this wider universe to our current age.

The Review writers have dared to poke a sleeping giant. For years colleges have snoozed serenely, replacing substantive requirements with “diversity” ones, and imagining that no one would object. The Stanford students have roused the administration and the student radicals out of their complacency. Elliott and the others have met with outrage, especially from classmates, but have stood firm and calmly and reasonably answered their opponents’ objections.

The Review writers’ measured voices contrast with the angry ones of the many other student protesters around the country who occupied presidents’ offices, went on hunger strikes and demanded to get their way. Indeed, moderation and open debate are lessons from Western civilization, which many “social justice warriors” have yet to learn.

If they succeed, Stanford students will have written a new chapter in Western civilization for future students to study.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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