On Study of the West at Stanford

May 04, 1988 15 min read
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West Has ‘Set Standards’ for ‘Rest of the World’

In an April 18 speech at Stanford University, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called the Stanford faculty’s recent vote to replace its undergraduate course on Western culture with one called “Cultures, Ideas, and Values’’ “an unfortunate capitulation to a campaign of pressure politics and intimidation.’'

Following is an excerpt from the Secretary’s speech, titled “Why the West.’'

Why must we study, nurture, and defend the West? I’ll give you four reasons. First, because it is ours. It is the culture in which we live and in which most of us will continue to live, whether our grandparents are African or Asian, Hungarian or Mexican, Muslim or Shinto. Our institutions and ideals--our schools and universities and their great, still honored traditions, our churches and synagogues, our government and laws, even our notions of friendship and family--have all acquired their shape and significance through the course of Western history, largely though not exclusively through the European experience.

To be sure, China, India, Africa, and other societies and cultures have made contributions to our institutions and ideals. Where contributions have been made, they must be acknowledged. Where new contributions emerge, they must be included. Historically, this has in fact been the standard Western practice: Western civilization is strong in part because it is open--it studies and learns from others.

The second reason we must study the West is that it is good. It is not all good. There are certainly great blots on its record. In the story of Western civilization, there are volumes of injustice great and small, of sins, omissions, and errors. Nevertheless, still, the West has produced the world’s most just and effective system of government: the system of representative democracy. It has set the moral, political, economic, and social standards for the rest of the world. To quote Allan Bloom, “Our story is the majestic and triumphant march of two principles: freedom and equality.’' And those principles now define no less than a universal standard of legitimacy.

This leads me to the third reason--the reason that Western civilization’s critics seem to have entirely missed: The West is a source of incomparable intellectual complexity and diversity and depth. Western civilization is emphatically not an endorsement of a particular “party line.’' On the contrary, the West’s long history of self-critical dialogue is one of its greatest strengths. Since the time of Socrates, what has distinguished the West is its insistence, in principle, on the questioning of accepted ways and beliefs--its openness to the appeal to nature, to use Socratic terms, as opposed to mere convention. It is true that the West has often failed, beginning with the death of Socrates, fully to live up to this principle--but the principle has always animated the Western experience.

The point for contemporary higher education is this: The classics of Western philosophy and literature amount to a great debate on the perennial questions. To deprive students of this debate is to condemn them to improvise their ways of living in ignorance of their real options and the best arguments for each. In the tradition of Peter Abelard, our civilization offers a great sic et non on the human condition.

Consider the point/counterpoint of Western thought. On the ends of government, whom do we follow--Madison or Marx? On the merits of the religious life--Aquinas or Voltaire? On the nobility of the warrior--Homer or Erasmus? On the worth of reason--Hegel or Kierkegaard? On the role of women--Wollstonecraft or Schopenhauer? The study of Western civilization is not, then, a case for ideology; it is a case for philosophy and for thoughtfulness. It considers not only the one hand, but the one hand and the other--and, just as often, the third and fourth hands as well. Those who take the study of the West seriously end up living a variety of different lives and arriving at a diversity of opinions and positions. And for this diversity, in the West as nowhere else, there is unparalleled tolerance and encouragement.

Indeed, some of the West’s greatest teachers and statesmen are those who have participated most vigorously in this continual process of dissent, discussion, and redirection. In our time, this tradition is well exemplified by the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. Reverend King immersed himself in the writings of the great philosophers: “From Plato to Aristotle,’' as he wrote, “down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke.’' These great thinkers--these Western thinkers--helped teach and inspire Reverend King to tear down the ugly injustices of Jim Crow and to bring us closer to the dream of freedom and equality for all men and women.

It is true that Reverend King was also inspired by the example of a non-Westerner--Gandhi. We should give credit where credit is due, and we should study Gandhi’s thought and deeds, as we should study the thought and deeds of others from outside the West. But I would add that in this case, when we study Gandhi, we shall see that Gandhi was himself very much indebted to such Western philosophers as Henry David Thoreau, and to such Anglo-American traditions as the rule of law. So even in studying Gandhi’s East, one cannot escape the West. Now, of course, nothing stops Stanford from requiring a course in traditions of thought other than the West; indeed much commends such an idea. But such an idea in no way diminishes the importance, the necessity, of studying the West.

Each year since becoming Education Secretary, I’ve been invited to the Martin Luther King Center to deliver an address marking Reverend King’s birthday. And each year, I speak of how he drew strength and purpose from his education, an education in the Western intellectual tradition. Last year, at Stanford, Reverend King’s birthday was marked by Jesse Jackson leading a group of students in the now famous cry: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go.’' Just a week earlier, I had been at the King Center in Atlanta talking about Reverend King’s self-proclaimed debt to Western thought. Either Reverend King was right, or Reverend Jackson is right. I’ll stand with King.

This brings me to my final reason for studying and protecting the West and its unique tradition of open discourse and philosophic inquiry: We must do so because the West is under attack. Oftentimes the assault comes from outside the West, but sometimes, sadly, it comes from within. Those who attack Western values and accomplishments do not see an America that--despite its imperfections, its weaknesses, its sins--has served and continues to serve as a beacon to the world. Instead, theirs is an America hopelessly tainted--tainted by racism, imperialism, sexism, capitalism, ethnocentrism, elitism, and a host of other “isms.’'

You’re probably familiar with such rhetoric--it has been used over and over again as a justification for the abolition of the Western Culture program here at Stanford. As one member of the Stanford comunity has said: “The Western Culture program gives intellectual justification to sexism, racism, and national chauvinism.’' So, the assertion goes, by diminishing the study of the West in our colleges and universities, we can make an important step toward ridding the world of these unholy “isms.’'

I would remind those critics that it is Western civilization that has taught much of the world about the evils of “sexism, racism, and national chauvinism.’' Indeed, it is the West that has given us the very language used to attack the West here at Stanford. After all, where do the concepts of rights, equality, and, yes, diversity come from? It is in the West, it is from the West, that we have learned--over time, through struggle, after bloodshed--to stand squarely behind liberty and equality for all people. An honest study of the West will provide the reasons for its protection. But how are we to protect the West if we set about systematically robbing ourselves of opportunities to know and study it?

Inventing a ‘New Model’ for Shared-Culture Study

In a speech evaluating Stanford’s undergraduate curriculum for the faculty senate in 1986, Carolyn C. Lougee, dean of undergraduate studies, addressed the concerns being raised at that time about the university’s courses in Western culture and called for the development of a new model:

[T]he concerns are legitimate, and they direct our attention to a cluster of issues having to do with the implications of political, social, and intellectual changes that have occurred over the course of the past 50 years or so since the genre of the Western Civilization course was invented.

The Western Civ course is not a timeless, eternal distillate of human wisdom. It is, rather, a time-specific phenomenon. It is a product of America (they don’t teach it, or understand it, in Europe) in the era of the First World War. It’s a product of external political necessity (the need to create a trans-Atlantic community) and of internal social necessity (the need to forge a national culture from Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Russians, and so on).

The Civ course created a myth of a West that transcended every ethnicity and embraced them all. “Western Civ” was of enormous value in those years, for it bonded together ethnicities, fostering intellectual respect among peoples by giving them a shared canon of knowledge picked from all the cultures from which those people had I come…

Since then, three evolutions have changed the context of university education. In politics, the Atlantic community has ceded to global economies and global political interactions.

In society, the expansion of the American citizenry, along with the implosion of the world’s populations into the United States, has brought onto our campuses not only European nationalities but Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, and Asians.

In scholarship, the past 20 years have seen the humanities and social sciences discover meanings of culture that stretch beyond the concept of “great works” as well as knowledge of, tools for studying, and respect for the experiences and cultures of women and minorities.

And so it seems to be time to ask whether the model that was ready to hand in 1980, the Western Civ course that had served American universities so well for so long, is adequate to the new political exigencies, the new social realities, and new scholarly understandings.

To me, it seems easily believable that the exclusive focus on European culture reinforces the sense of marginality and “discomfort” of the newest arrivals on American campuses and that a new model of shared freshman culture course needs to be invented to serve the more diversified population that is now on our campus and in the country’s future.

Non-Western Viewpoints ‘Broaden Understanding’

According to the Stanford faculty senate, the first objective of the new culture course-- “Cultures, Ideas, and Values"--is “to provide students with the common intellectual experience of broadening their understanding of ideas and values drawn from different strands of our own culture, and to increase their understanding of cultural diversity and the process of cultural interaction.”

In the following selections from a discussion prepared for the university’s Campus Report, John Perry, professor of philosophy, explains the rationale for creating the new course and abolishing its predecessor’s “core list” of readings:

The 1978 task force described Western culture as follows:

“We think of Western culture as originating in the Near East, Greece, and Rome, developing in diverse ways in Europe and North America, and gradually influencing and being influenced by cultures in virtually all other parts of the world.”

So Western culture is defined by starting with something in the ancient world, and tracing its influence forward. This certainly includes a lot of important works and events, which form a main source of contemporary American ideas and values. And works from Western culture, so defined, will continue to constitute most of the tracks. It is what the faculty knows best, and [the new course], while emphasizing the role of other cultures, specifically requires all tracks to include Europe, and emphasizes the last six to eight centuries of European culture as an important root of present American society.

But the concept of Western culture, understood in this way, is not co-extensive with the concept of the roots of contemporary American ideas and values. To fix the extension of the latter notion in our minds, we begin with contemporary America and trace backward for roots. Those that lead back through Europe to Greece and the Near East are important, but there are others that lead to other parts of Africa, to Latin America, to parts of Asia.

I am not, of course, recommending that we teach the course in reverse chronological order ....

The [course] is not based on the idea that all such roots need to be represented in every track. But it does maintain that each track ought to provide some recognition that there are roots other than the dominant one…

The works should not be drawn exclusively from Europe: Somewhere in the three-quarter track, non-European works (i.e., from cultures in the Near East, Africa, the Americas, and Asia that are not European transplants) that have had an impact on contemporary American culture should be studied. The works should not be exclusively by white males, and some should confront issues relating to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Tracks as a whole should help students understand how important ideas and values are in shaping the perceptions of a period or culture, and how the interactions of cultures shape ideas and values. This experience should help students broaden their understanding of ideas and values of contemporary American culture. And as they understand better the ideas and values that motivate people, they should better understand both themselves and others…

There are two ways to look at the core list. The core list was originally conceived as a flexible document, serving to provide a common if somewhat arbitrary core of worthwhile works. It was developed by a committee of faculty who were teaching courses that existed before 1978, that seemed liable to be good candidates for inclusion into the new program. It was assumed that it would change…

The other conception is of the core list as Stanford’s canon of great works, the list of works that &re better than any others, and will remain so independently of the faculty interested in teaching them, the students to whom they will be taught, or new ideas in scholarship.

Both conceptions are controversial. The first requires us to accept that engagement with important works of the past is an effective educational technique. Many do not believe this. But this point of view was argued for in the 1978 report, and was accepted by the Senate when it passed the current legislation.

The second point of view is, and should be, more controversial, for a number of reasons. First, even to those who accept traditional views about the greatness of some works, and the role of great works in history, the particular core list cannot be reasonably regarded as anything but one selection among many possible ones of works that would be worthwhile to use.

Are we really to believe that the explanation of works of Machiavelli and More being on the reading list, and not those of Berkeley and Sidgwick, is because the former are better works to use, independently of faculty interest, student concerns, and the state of scholarship? Are we to believe that no works from China or India are as worthy of inclusion, no matter who is teaching or I learning, as Luther or Freud?

Is the decision to use Machiavelli’s The Prince, rather than Al-Maghili’s The Obligation of Princes timeless and eternal? This was not the conception of the core list I that was defended in the 1978 report, the 1980 Pilot Committee Report, or the meetings of the Senate.

Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including many younger faculty at Stanford whose involvement ... is crucial, have offered the Task Force additional reasons to doubt this conception of the core list.

They feel that modern work on interpretive theory, canon formation, and other topics has shown that the whole idea of a list of great works, even one much more extensive than the core list, is suspect. There are more and less extreme versions of such views, of course. And it does not follow from this view that engagement with important works is not educationally sound. But we have a solid core of younger faculty who are extremely reluctant to get involved with a core list, conceived of not as a flexible teaching instrument, but as a timeless decision.

The history of the core list shows that it was originally conceived in the first way, as a pragmatic, flexible document that would help ensure a common experience, and would reflect, at any given time, the interests and perspectives of the Stanford faculty, and so provide students with a basis for further work at Stanford. But it has been perceived by virtually everyone outside the teaching faculty, and some within, in the second way. It has become the symbol of a course that was never recommended to the Senate, and never voted on by the Senate, that does not represent the values of most of those who teach in the course, and is a bar to many who would like to ....

I am firmly convinced that the core list is harmful. It costs us more than it brings us. It has distorted not only perceptions of the program, but the program itself. It has alienated a generation of minority and area studies faculty whose participation is crucial. It has helped fortify the unfortunate wall between humanities and social sciences faculty that the cooperative enterprise of teaching Western culture was supposed to help break down. It original aim was to help ensure a common experience, and it does this. But there is more common experience envisaged in the core list than there is in the syllabi, and more in the syllabi than there is in the classroom. The amount of common experience generated by the core list can be approached by other means and does not justify the price we are paying for it ....

Given the increased freedom for experimentation the absence of the core list will provide, and the need to integrate works from non-European sources, one can expect some fine works to be replaced, but there is no reason to suspect that great works will be replaced by inferior ones. There are many great works of literature and philosophy and art from Latin America, Asia, and Africa ....


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