Update on the State of Western Civilization at Stanford

Stanford Review Editorial Board

On February 21, 2016, the Stanford Review sent a petition to the student body asking undergraduates to sign for a Western Civilization ballot initiative:

In accordance with Stanford’s commitment to educating its students, and in recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic, and social institutions, Stanford University should mandate that freshmen complete a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement covering the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.

Although the initiative made it successfully onto the ballot, it did not receive the necessary threshold of votes to be recommended to the Faculty Senate and administration. However, the publicity around the initiative has caused both those at Stanford and those at other higher education institutions to consider the validity of a strong humanities core.

At Stanford, conversation was sparked in dining halls, dormitories, and other student publications. The daily newspaper at Stanford published many articles on the subject, including opinion pieces both for and against the initiative. Others proposed suggestions for what a Western Civilization requirement might look like at Stanford. One student wrote, “the more I think about it, the more I warm to the idea of learning more about Western civilization.”

Right now, there is no Western Civilization survey course offered in the main course catalogue. It is available only to the tiny cohort of students who enroll in Stanford’s Structured Liberal Education program (SLE), a program in which about 90 students study Western philosophers for the entirety of their freshman year.

Stanford’s weak humanities and the proposal to bring back mandated core classes made it to national news. The Review’s editor-in-chief, Harry Elliot, was interviewed and quoted in publications across the country. The National Review explained that passing the initiative would reject the notion that identity politics trumps all. In the New York Post, Ashley Thorne reported the National Association of Scholars’ findings that Stanford is not unique in its lack of Western Civilization requirement, but that the majority of the top 50 premier institutions in the United States have also eliminated the requirement. Suzanne Fields of the Washington Times commented,

The Stanford debate is a window on how institutions of higher learning lost sight of what’s important to think about. Now students eager to move forward can lead them back to debate about what’s important to every American.

The Stanford Review and its quest for the added course also made appearances in the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, PJ Media, The Weekly Standard, and RealClearPolitics.

Although support was strong nationally, there were two main sources of contention on campus: opposition to Western Civilization, and opposition to an additional requirement. Minority communities, which had in the late 1980s successfully eliminated the requirement, opposed the idea of a course solely focusing on Western civilization. While the proposed requirement was arguably different from the previous one, these students resisted choosing the West over other civilizations. Their rhetoric was dominated by the left-wing perception that Western Civilization is wholly oppressive. The Review answered this objection by pointing out that we can only critique Western culture’s legacy when we know it, and that the impetus to end slavery and secure equal rights for women and minorities came from Western values. Others on campus might have been indifferent to or even in support of the introduction of a Western Civilization class, but did not support an additional requirement for graduation. For many students who are trying to pursue two majors, are focusing on engineering, or are on a pre-medical track, it is already a challenge to complete a degree in four years. Adding a requirement would not only make these students take a class on a subject for which they may not have an interest, but it would increase the overall course load needed to complete their degree.

At the moment, a Western Civilization requirement will not be implemented at Stanford. However, the campus now has a new interest in the humanities broadly speaking - and it has not gone unnoticed by the faculty. Starting next fall, Stanford will offer a class on ancient civilizations, freezing time and moving through space. This class is one of nearly 40 ‘Thinking Matters’ classes, of which one class must be taken during freshman year. Furthermore, the Structured Liberal Education program now has a body of logical and empirical support to remain as a necessary humanities option for incoming students.        

The Stanford Review is proud to have introduced an initiative that is imperative to the success of a true liberal arts education. Although Western Civilization will not be studied by every Stanford student next year, the discussions on campus and around the country about the way that civilization courses can and should be utilized has exposed a variety of students to courses they may have never considered. While we still believe that a mandated requirement is the best solution, we are happy to have taken the first step towards opening the minds of students to learning about the foundations of our own culture. 


Image: Rome by Moyan Brenn // CC BY

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